While an unknown number of people around the country showing symptoms of coronavirus infection struggle or are unable to be tested, professional basketball teams have had no problem procuring and performing dozens and dozens of tests for their players and personnel.
Last Wednesday, the NBA abruptly postponed its entire season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, a potentially lethal virus that is especially dangerous for elderly people and people with underlying health conditions. After Gobert’s results came back positive, the Oklahoma City Health Department dispatched a team to test 58 Jazz players and personnel. (One additional test came back positive.) According to city health commissioner Gary Cox, those 58 tests represented 60 percent of Oklahoma’s peak daily testing capacity.
The entire Toronto Raptors team was tested last week; all came back negative, and players are still self-isolating. A New York Times report Monday said that the Oklahoma City Thunder also tested players and personnel, but did it through unspecified “alternative” means, so as not to further deplete the state’s supply of tests. The Athletic reported that the Philadelphia 76ers will be tested, and the Los Angeles Lakers will reportedly be testing their players today, presumably paying out of pocket to buy tests from a private company.
Do you work in a hospital or for an NBA team? We'd love to hear from you. Contact the writer at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yesterday, the Brooklyn Nets, who play in the state with the highest number of COVID-19 infections in the nation, said the team was tested. Four players, including Kevin Durant, tested positive, though only one of the four players was showing symptoms of the virus. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the team went through a private company to buy the tests. (The Nets did not respond to a question asking which private company provided the testing or how much it cost). Even New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio, who flouted public health recommendations when he went to the gym on Monday, addressed the Nets’ tests, writing, “We wish them a speedy recovery. But, with all due respect, an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”
Two days ago, the federal government said that, due to the shortage of tests, certain people would get the tests first. The Associated Press wrote:
Priority for testing would go to medical professionals and senior citizens with viral symptoms, officials said, in an effort to avoid “paralyzing” the U.S. health system.
“It’s important the tests are available for the people who are most in need and our health care workers and first responders that are helping and supporting them,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at the White House.
NBA players are not medical professionals or senior citizens, and, as a whole, they’re among the fittest and healthiest humans on the planet.
An emergency room doctor in New York, who spoke to VICE on the condition on anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak publicly, said the shortage of tests, along with the lack of protective equipment for doctors and nurses, is an impediment to containing the virus.
“I'm sure the NBA wants to stop players spreading it amongst each other, so it makes good sense […] from a league standpoint. It makes, you know, zero sense from a public health standpoint,” he said. “I have people calling and coming into the ER—and no one should come to the ER like this, but people do—but we definitely have people calling who are clearly positive, or maybe borderline cases, and it would be very useful to know [if they have the virus].”
“The current practice in New York is no one who's not getting admitted to a hospital is getting a test,” he said. “Except for basketball players.”
In an ABC News report published yesterday about the test shortage, Dr. Anjali Vaswanathan said she tried to obtain a test for a patient who had traveled to Italy, worked in a New York airport, and had symptoms including a fever and shortness of breath. She said she met dead ends with a New Jersey hospital, the state health department and two other hospitals:
"As far as the physician community, we're all experiencing this. We keep getting the answer that patients are not meeting criteria," she said.
"But in my opinion, it's even more important to know which patients carry the virus who don't fit the typical profile," she added. "That's the only way to protect the community at large."
The NBA put out a statement last night that said:
Public health authorities and team doctors have been concerned that, given the NBA players’ direct contact with each other and close interactions with the general public, in addition to their frequent travel, they could accelerate the spread of the virus. Following two players testing positive last week, others were tested and five additional players tested positive. Hopefully by these players choosing to make their test results public, they have drawn attention to the critical need for young people to follow CDC recommendations in order to protect others, particularly those with underlying health conditions and the elderly.
NBA spokesman John Acunto did not answer a follow up question about which public-health authorities are recommending testing of otherwise healthy NBA players who are no longer traveling and are therefore not at risk of infecting the public. The reasoning that NBA players are what experts call “super-spreaders” is no longer valid as they’re not traveling and are, or should be, social distancing just like everyone else. There’s simply no utility in testing NBA players: Every test an asymptomatic player is getting is a test someone else isn't. NBA players, like everyone else, just need to stay home and be careful. Golden State Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, at least seems to get it. On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, he said, “It's very difficult to find a test in California and many places. So if any of our players do come down sick or any of our employees, we'll [do] our best to get a test, but there's definitely frustration that we don't all have access to them, but there's nothing we can do about it."
It’s not the players’ fault that they’re being tested. Billionaire team owners and team doctors are using their connections with healthcare providers to protect their assets, the players, by making sure they’re as healthy as possible, even if doing so is unnecessary and uses up precious resources that could be used to test healthcare workers and other sick people who don’t have access to a private flock of team doctors.
“It would be cool if these guys could contact some friends and get some nurses some PPE in New York,” the emergency room doctor said of team owners, referencing the personal protective equipment healthcare professionals should wear when working with certain contagious or potentially contagious patients. “If you look at how [doctors and nurses] are going around in China and Japan in this virus, they're in, like, hazmat suits. And if you look at how doctors and nurses are handling it in New York, they're in cloth masks only on their face, because we don't have enough suits. So we're being asked to come in and risk our lives. I have a friend who died, he’s 35, in Iran. It's a real risk.”
The funneling of precious medical resources to the wealthy doesn’t start or stop with the NBA, of course. Two buddies of Donald Trump, who lied through his teeth last week when he said anyone who wants a COVID test can get one, were able to get tested for the virus. There are likely many other people using their connections and money to get or buy tests, and it’s hardly a stretch to think that wealthy non-famous people are paying private companies for COVID-19 tests. This is things working as they’re supposed to, the predictable outcome of designing the entire American medical system to serve those who can pay.
“If they're going to use private business resources for stuff, they might as well use it to make some of that more about equipment,” said the emergency room doctor. “We would love some more hazmat suits and more vents [ventilators] for our patients.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Laura Wagner on Twitter.