A Close Look at the NHL’s COVID Testing Practices
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay
When the novel coronavirus first hit the global headlines, the sports world was skeptical about suspending games and canceling seasons and schedules. The closest the COVID-19 threat came to NHL was when Utah Jazz center, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus leading to the suspension of NBA games.
Since NBA and NHL games are played in the same arenas, chances for contact and spread of the virus to NHL players were high. For that reason, on March 12, 2020, the board of Governors held an emergency conference call to chat the way forward concerning the pandemic.
The Onset Days of COVID in the NHL
It was commissioner Gary Bettman that first recommended that the NHL games be suspended, opening room for objections and debate. The debate and discussions revolved around several topics, including:
- Financial implications of shutting down the multi-billion dollar business
- 2019-20 regular season’s resumption dates and the Stanley Cup playoffs if they were to get suspended
- Actions an NHL team should take in the case of a player testing positive for the virus.
No one in the NHL circle had been diagnosed with the virus at the time of this meeting. However, the meeting acted as a wake-up call in the war against the virus. The meeting pushed the NHL to take actions that would later be considered the right or better steps against COVID.
While the NBA opted to go for private testing in high-end hospital facilities, the NHL thought such a move wasn’t good for the ailing majority. NBA teams’ move to test all their players at the expense of critically ill patients waiting to be tested was met by backlash from all and sundry.
For such reasons, NHL team owners and league officials opted for different ways of managing the virus. That saw further suggestions arising from various quarters, including from team owners and other shareholders.
For instance, Senator’s team owner, Eugene Melnyk, suggested options he believes could help bring people back into the game. He wasn’t convinced using a COVID-19 vaccine was a solution to the challenge of bringing people back into the rinks.
The Outstanding Actions of the NHL against COVID-19
Among other measures like suspending the 2019-20 league, the NHL officials and shareholders have done more to see a minimal spread of the virus. In various cities and towns, testing and screening events were put in place to ensure players’ safety.
Many of the NHL teams did a great job in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In Edmonton, 12 testing stations were set in Roger’s Place’s Ford Hall where NHL team players could get tested. DynaLIFE Medical Labs is handling the testing in Edmonton.
The players could pick their pre-printed forms on the check-in tables and proceed after the other tests. On the opposite side, a lab technician would administer a swab test for the coronavirus. The test only lasted about five minutes, which left the players free for other activities for the rest of the day.
Given that these testing centers serve other public members, the technicians had a lot on their tables. Nevertheless, they still managed a seamless testing activity for the players in the shortest time possible.
Edmonton is the home city for the 12 Western Conference teams, where about 900 players, coaches, league and team staffs, hotel employees, and security personnel dwell. All these groups of people are tested to uphold safety rules.
Toronto is the hub city for 12 Eastern Conference teams participating in the 2021 Stanley Cup qualifiers. In Toronto, daily testing was continually in practice four days after the crews arrived for preseason training. That was set in place to ensure players, staff, and coaches are kept healthy throughout the NHL season.
The NHL was keen to maintain its aim of not interfering with the testing for the public. That explains why the teams’ tests were conducted in LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services and not in a privately-set facility.
If a player, coach, or staff member tests positive, the NHL has a detailed protocol for handling the positive cases. These actions caught the attention of provincial and national health agencies. They reviewed the health practices and only urged that the Toronto health team working with the NHL achieved the following:
- Detecting positive cases as early as possible
- Preventing spread of the virus within the bubble
Lessons from COVID-19 and How NHL Handled it in the Onset Days
Apart from showing the world how they cared most about the general public’s wellbeing, the NHL had numerous other lessons to teach on the virus.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch is an infectious diseases physician working with the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute. He has been in the center of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. He has been consulted widely by the NHL and significant soccer league associations concerning the development of the return-to-play protocols for COVID-19.
Bogoch warned that getting people back into an indoor environment without proper safety measures could be detrimental. Even though the statement is an obvious observation, the NHL needed to consider all the safety measures before the 2020-21 season resumption.
While one of the measures of preventing the coronavirus’s spread is scrubbing floors, Bogoch came out with a different finding. He claims the transmission rate from direct contact with surfaces is less risky than the person-to-person type of infection.
With his help and such realizations, the NHL leaders came out with a better understanding of how this virus can be transmitted and evaded.
Instead of the overboard spraying and disinfection procedures meant for PR stunts, league organizers should focus on keeping the virus from the arenas.
He suggests that the role of frequent diagnostic testing and screening is something the NHL teams shouldn’t downplay. The current test involving nasal, orals swab, and nasopharyngeal needs to be sent to a PCR test lab.
Bogoch wishes for a time when the tests will be simple ones like pregnancy tests. If the tests could be done on the saliva and a ‘Yes/No’ result revealed, the whole process would be quicker and more effective.
In its return-to-play program, the NHL had a four-week testing and screening period, which came out with zero records of positive cases. During these four weeks, testing was administered to all members of the 52 participating clubs daily. If the NHL continues taking such stringent measures, then the season will undoubtedly be a seamless season with minimal COVID-19 threats.