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Major League Baseball attempts to explain COVID-19 testing delays

COVID-19 testing delays

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 25: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. looks on prior to game two of the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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Multiple teams had to delay or cancel workouts today because of COVID-19 testing delays. Major League Baseball was unable to send out COVID-19 tests and received test results back in compliance with the league’s safety protocols. It was a bad look for the league, especially given the harsh words general managers of two teams -- the Athletics and the Nationals -- had for MLB’s failures in this regard.

Beyond the bad look it was bad substantively, as (a) teams and players not knowing test results makes it harder for everyone to carry on in a safe and responsible manner and to identify which players or personnel should be isolated; and (b) canceled team workouts put the canceling teams at a competitive disadvantage compared to teams who did not have to cancel. The Athletics, as we speak, have still not had a full-squad workout. The Yankees and other teams have played simulated games already because they did not, like other teams, experience COVID-19 testing delays.

Against that backdrop, Major League Baseball has issued a statement. Here’s what it had to say about the test delays:

“As of today, more than 95% of the tests under the Intake Screening period have been conducted, analyzed and shared with all 30 Clubs. All of the individuals among the 95% have now moved on to the phase that will test them every other day. The remaining number of outstanding tests are expected to be completed today.

“Our plan required extensive delivery and shipping services, including proactive special accommodations to account for the holiday weekend. The vast majority of those deliveries occurred without incident and allowed the protocols to function as planned. Unfortunately, several situations included unforeseen delays. We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence. We commend the affected Clubs that responded properly by cancelling workouts.

“We appreciate the great cooperation from the players as well as the hard work of the Clubs and many internal and external staff members under these challenging circumstances. The process has not been without some unforeseen difficulties, which are being addressed with the service providers that are essential to the execution of the protocols. It is important to be mindful that nearly all of the individuals have been tested as planned. The health and safety of our players and employees will remain our highest priorities.”

As was clear as early as this morning -- and as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported this afternoon -- the issue was that Major League Baseball did not, apparently, appreciate that FedEx did not have a full complement of delivery services over a holiday weekend. Really. As Sherman put it, “normal delivery service is FedEx, but on holiday weekend it did not pick up or deliver.”

So what did MLB do? It went to its backup courier which, Sherman reported, relies on commercial air travel. In Sherman’s words, “between the holiday weekend/COVID issues not as many planes were available to get the samples where they needed to be.” Sherman went on to cite the large volume of tests to process since it was the opening of the season, causing a backlog.

I am the father of two teenagers. If one of them messed up and I was presented with a set of excuses this poor I’d ground them twice as long as I had originally planned to on general principle.

Note that the league uses the word “unforeseen,” not “unforeseeable.” There’s a reason for this: the Fourth of July -- and the fact that a lot of things close on the Fourth of July -- is something that happens every year. It doesn’t sneak up on a person. MLB’s failure to see that a national holiday may require a little extra planning for a set of protocols which require thousands of bodily fluid samples to be shipped from 30 locations to Salt Lake City, Utah and be turned around in 48 hours is not a matter of it being blindsided. It’s a matter of carelessness.

It’s also worth noting that FedEx’s shipping over the holiday weekend has been online since the first of the year. Here, look for yourself:

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I don’t know what level of service MLB uses, but there were options. Or, at the very least -- if MLB wasn’t springing for the more expensive shipping -- there was advanced notice.

It’s also worth noting that if you have a backup shipper and that backup shipper (a) is relying in commercial travel; but (b) somehow is unable to secure commercial travel when its backup services are needed, that maybe you need a better backup shipper. And, I would argue, maybe it’s something MLB should’ve verified beforehand.

Finally, that whole “backlog of tests due to everyone showing up to camps” thing Sherman referred to and which is referred to in passing in MLB’s statement as a means of explaining the COVID-19 testing delays doesn’t really cut it given that, again, MLB knew that everyone was reporting for camp in the middle of or toward the end of last week. No matter what its plans were for the every-other-day testing that will be done once things are up and running, it knew that several thousand tests had to be done and processed at the outset. That many tests in a short period of time were, again, “unforeseen,” according to MLB’s statement but they were not unforeseeable.

The rest of MLB’s statement is used to talk up how many tests it has done and how it is closing the gap due to the COVID-19 testing delays. At the time of release, “more than 95% of the tests” to be done on intake were done and the rest would be done by the end of the day today. It notes that results for “the majority” of the samples taken before the out-of-nowhere Fourth of July holiday got going (June 27-July 3) were reported the day after the sample collections occurred. It also adds that the Utah laboratory it is using “is operating on a seven-day-a-week schedule from July 5th through the end of the World Series.”

Here’s hoping that the league consults FedEx’s Labor Day hours before early September.

Follow @craigcalcaterra