Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

Now that we have more details on the health precautions being discussed between baseball owners and the players, should we feel any better — or feel that players will be any safer — about starting the season during this pandemic than we did a week ago?

The short answer seems to be no, according to infectious disease expert and friend of the Cubs Talk Podcast Dr. Robert Citronberg, who joined the pod to discuss the subject for the second time this month.

Citronberg, the specialist affiliated with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, called Major League Baseball’s plan “very, very difficult to pull off,” even using all the preventative safety measures outlined in MLB’s 67-page health proposal to players this week.

The players union reportedly responded late in the week, and the sides are in a negotiating process many expect will lead to a start to a 2020 season by early July.

RELATED: Players association responds to MLB health proposal, negotiations continue

Multiple diagnostic tests of every player and other essential personnel per week? Daily temperature checks? Social distancing in clubhouses and dugouts? Bans on high fives, spitting, lineup-card exchanges and even showers?

Citronberg remains skeptical the sum of reported precautions will assure any significantly reduced risk of a COVID-19 outbreak on a given team or teams and raised the public-welfare argument over thousands of tests being devoted to baseball players when tests remain hard to get for some in underserved communities who need them.

While nobody is suggesting the reported details represent a final plan, the 67-page proposal includes a quarantine procedure for a positive test that isolates only the individual testing positive instead of including all those in contact with him (i.e., much or all of the team) — which most experts suggest is necessary to be effective.

“There’s a pretty good chance he’s already exposed other people, perhaps the entire locker room [by the time an individual tests positive],” Citronberg said. “So it’s a little bit risky in general to have a strategy where you’re only isolating the particular person who tested positive rather than the entire group that he was in contact with.

“There’s a real chance that this could spread rapidly in a locker room,” he added. “If it can be pulled off, yeah, I think that is a model [for other sports]. I just would be concerned [about] what’s the downside if it doesn’t work and players or other personnel get very sick or could even die from it — people might be asking themselves, `Was it worth it.’ “

That league-wide risk doesn’t even take into account that specifically Cook County — home to both of the state’s baseball teams — has the highest coronavirus infection rate of any county in the United States.

Citronberg, who has advised several large companies and sports organizations on operating during the pandemic, also raised the issue of predictions by health officials that after August a new fall flu season could lead to a second wave of COVID-19 infections nationally and even globally.

“There’s a few issues involved here,” he said of whether he would advise baseball to start under the reported plan. “As a doctor, I probably see things a little bit differently than a Major League Baseball executive. It just really matters what kind of risk is acceptable to you to do it.”

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Why Cubs' serious, effective approach in COVID-19 pandemic might not be enough

Why Cubs' serious, effective approach in COVID-19 pandemic might not be enough

Giants catcher Buster Posey is a three-time champion, six-time All-Star and former National League MVP.

Is he a Hall of Famer? That’s the big question, right?

Not anymore. Not after Friday, when he officially opted out of playing baseball during a pandemic.

That changed the big Buster Posey question to whether he’s baseball’s smartest guy in the room.

On a day the Cubs delayed their workouts for the second time in a week over COVID-19 testing issues, Johns Hopkins University reported a single-day record of new coronavirus cases (more than 63,900) for the United States for the second consecutive day.

It’s two weeks until major league openers.

Posey, who expressed concern for the past week, was open about his decision, citing the risk when it came to the premature newborn twins he and his wife have adopted and who remain in a neonatal intensive care unit.

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He’s one of 11 players who have chosen not to play this season. Others such as superstar Mike Trout of the Angels — whose wife is due with their first child next month — continue to straddle the fence on whether to play.

And players such as Cubs star Kris Bryant expressed concern and anxiety over MLB’s first-week testing problems and at one point considered opting out before deciding to commit to trying to play.

MORE: Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

“We’re taking every safeguard that we possibly can, and I’m proud of the way the players have been responding,” said Cubs president Theo Epstein, whose team is the only one, at least in the National League, without a positive test among players or coaches since intake testing began.

“But we can’t let our guard down, and we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can control all the variables here.”

The variables, and certainly the risk, are constantly changing.

In Florida, one of the hardest hit states for coronavirus surges, Miami-Dade County reported an astounding 28-percent positive rate for its Friday test results — down from 33.5 percent Thursday.

That, of course, is the home of the Miami Marlins.

Two more of the hardest hit states across the sun belt, Texas (105) and California (149) reported one-day records for coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday.

They are home to seven more big-league teams, including Posey’s and Trout’s.

Again, it’s two weeks until major league openers — when teams leave their individual safe zones and start to travel.

Will Trout still want to play by then? Will Nationals closer Sean Doolittle? The Brewers’ Ryan Braun? Or anybody else who has dipped one toe into this experiment as they’ve talked publicly about their concerns and reservations?

And just how tight will MLB’s testing ship — and shipping of results — be by then?

The Cubs by all appearances are doing it right, from masks in the clubhouse and dugouts to social distancing and meetings among players to discuss being accountable to each other and staying out of bars and restaurants when they’re away from the field.

But what about the cluster of positives among the Phillies, or the startling virus rates in Arizona — or that one player in Cleveland who decided to party without a mask during the holiday weekend?

“That’s the reality of living in this country in 2020, is you’re never divorced from concern, no matter what you’re doing,” Epstein said. “Whether you’re home with your family or running errands or working from home or trying to pull off a baseball season in the middle of a pandemic, the subtext of everything that you do is concern.

“Not just concern for yourself, not just concern for your families, but concern for your teammates, your colleagues, your brothers and sisters, your community, the country as a whole and the world as a whole — although certainly the rest of the world has seemingly managed their way into a better place at the moment than we have.”

As countries through much of Europe and parts of Asia have effectively mobilized at a federal level to stem the spread of the virus, the United States has experienced a summer surge within what experts consider the first of possibly multiple waves of the pandemic, the death toll climbing past 135,000 — close to twice the total of Brazil, which has the second-highest number of virus-related deaths.

“We don’t have a huge margin for error,” Epstein said of the league’s safety and health protocols designed by the only major professional league trying to play games at all of its home sites. “As we move forward, as we continue to try to pull this off, we have to continue to find a way to keep our players safe and healthy.”

Against a moving target. Without any way to know what direction it might take tomorrow, much less August.

“The virus is the only thing in control right now,” Epstein said.


Theo Epstein: Cubs to weigh 'real-world impact' of trades during pandemic

Theo Epstein: Cubs to weigh 'real-world impact' of trades during pandemic

Economic uncertainty might be the biggest reason to think teams won’t be trading name players or dumping contracts at the newly designated Aug. 31 trade deadline if Major League Baseball is able to pull off its 60-game season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But don’t underestimate this reason: Ethics.

“We’ve talked about that as a baseball operations group, that there are extra considerations this year,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday. “Not that we don’t consider our players’ preferences and their family lives and their comfort under normal circumstances; it’s just one variable of many.

“Under these circumstances we feel it is appropriate to weigh that variable — the real-world impact of any transaction on a player — more heavily than you would under normal circumstances because of the crisis around us, because of the adversity that we’re facing.”

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Cubs star Kris Bryant, who was a hot topic in trade rumors all winter, raised the issue earlier this week when he said, with a smile: “I’d like to think I wouldn’t get shipped out in the middle of a pandemic.”

Epstein: “That’s something that we all feel, that with everything going on in the world I think you cherish the few constants you have. … I completely get where Kris is coming from.”

MORE: Why COVID-19 crisis might create opportunity for Cubs to re-sign Kris Bryant

And beyond the extra empathetic and moral consideration the Cubs foresee during a tenuous, anxiety-ridden undertaking, any trade also brings with it the inherent risk of how a player from the outside will adapt to a new group’s level of commitment to safe practices, on and off the field.

“But there’s going to be transactions this year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There’s no way to avoid that, whether they be big or small.”

Releases and outright assignments, for instance, will be necessary just to get the roster to 30 for the July 24 opener, down to 28 two weeks later and 26 two weeks after that.

“We still have a job to do, and this is still in the end a business,” Epstein said. “But I don’t think we’d be displaying the kind of empathy and thoughtfulness in consideration of others that we ask of our players if we wouldn’t place greater emphasis on the human side of any transaction at this point.”

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