We Had Sports Questions. Dr. Fauci Had Answers.
By Ben Cohen
Dr. Anthony Fauci has been an unlikely player in the sports world since the very first day of the pandemic.
The nation’s leading authority on infectious diseases said on March 11 that the coronavirus posed enough of a threat for the NBA to play in empty arenas. As it turned out, there would be no games without fans. The league suspended its season that night. American sports were shut down that week.
The public-health expert who is widely admired for his candor treads carefully on this subject these days. Dr. Fauci has encouraged the return of sports and publicly endorsed the plans of some professional leagues, but he’s also offered pleas for caution that have clashed with the White House’s push to reopen and occasionally put him at odds with President Trump.
A high-school athlete who religiously follows the Washington Nationals—he opened their season on Thursday with a regrettable first pitch—Dr. Fauci shared his thoughts about sports with The Wall Street Journal. This interview has been condensed and edited.
We’ve seen two very different approaches in sports. The NBA built a bubble. Major League Baseball and the NFL did not. Do you think baseball and football teams are doing enough to keep themselves safe and keep the community safe?
I don’t want to comment about relativeness—is it enough or not. I spoke to [Nationals owner] Mark Lerner last night and even to the baseball commissioner, and they feel comfortable that the protocols are really adequate to do. I think they probably are. I just can’t pass judgment, because it’s uncharted water. You don’t know what’s going to be adequate.
I can’t imagine the second part of your question as to whether they’re posing a risk to the community. The community is not at the game. The community is home watching it on television. So I think the critical issue is: Are they doing enough to safeguard the safety of the players and the personnel who are part of the organization? I think they’re testing frequently enough, if I’m not mistaken. They picked up Juan Soto as being infected.
Did you reconsider going to the game after Soto tested positive?
Why would I reconsider? What would be the danger?
We don’t know if any of the other players on the team had been infected in the lag between when his positive test came back and when he was isolated.
But I was in the stands. I didn’t interact with the players. I had a mask on. I walked out to the mound—60 feet, which looked like 100 feet away from Sean [Doolittle]—and when Sean and I walked up to each other, we both had masks on. So I didn’t consider myself in any danger.
Do you fear that sports leagues are using too many tests when others are struggling to get results?
I didn’t do the math, and I don’t want to get in trouble. But given the fact that they’re looking at doing about 1 million tests a day or more for the country—which is where we are right now; they’re talking about somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million tests a day—I cannot imagine that testing sports people is going to have a big dent. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem that way.
But what about turnaround times? Basketball teams are getting results back in a day, which is great. But other people are waiting a week or 10 days.
Yeah. I think you have to try and improve the turnaround time rather than blame someone else for low turnaround time. I don’t see the dots between sports getting their results back quickly and other groups not as being necessarily connected. They have a system, which is the rapid tests that get it quickly. We should be doing more for surveillance that way. We should try and improve it overall.
Athletes are young, healthy and in great shape. But do you worry about the long-term effects of this virus?
I think it depends on the extent of involvement of your coronavirus infection. Most of the athletes that we’ve seen—and obviously there’s going to be exceptions—most of the athletes are young. We know statistically that young people either get infected without any symptoms or when they do get infected, the chances of going on to advanced disease that would require hospitalization is low.
It is not zero. And that’s the thing that you’ve got to get people to appreciate. It isn’t zero. There are some clear instances of people who are young and otherwise healthy who went on to get seriously ill. Rarely—and it is rarely—they’ve even gone on to get seriously ill and die. The risk is not zero. I think the players need to understand that.
But I’m trying to do a comparison here. If you take a player and say the player is in society but doesn’t get tested very often or at all, because they don’t see any reason to get tested, is that person more or less at risk than a baseball player who is playing a sport, interacting with people, but getting tested often? You would almost think that the people who get tested often and know about things are maybe even at less risk of an issue than those on the outside. I’m not so sure they’re taking a greater risk.
We all should be aware that the risk is not zero unless you completely lock yourself in. Would the players, if they weren’t playing baseball, be locking themselves in their homes? I don’t think so.
Asia has fans back in stadiums. Europe will have fans in a few weeks. What would you like to see happen for baseball and football stadiums here to have fans again?
I think they would have to do everything they possibly can to safeguard the health and the welfare of people. Namely, they’ve got to have a considerable degree of distancing. I think they should mandate that if you want to go into an arena or a stadium that you have to have a mask on. They shouldn’t back off that. In my opinion—I’m not the ruler here; you’re asking me for my opinion—they should make sure everybody has a mask and there’s enough physical separation between spectators that you don’t have people sitting all over each other’s laps.
Do you think about outdoor stadiums and indoor arenas differently?
Yeah, absolutely. Outdoors is always better than indoors. I mean, there’s no doubt about that. Whether it’s a stadium or a restaurant or anything. Outdoors is better than indoors.
Would you have gone to the Nationals game last night if there had been fans in the stadium?
You’ve got to be careful with me as a person. I’m 79 years old, and I have a couple of underlying conditions. I’m at high risk. Would I want to do that? I don’t know. Probably not. But that’s the reason why you’ve got to be careful of who you are.
I have a daughter who’s perfectly healthy. If she loved baseball the way I love baseball and said, “Dad, what do you think? I want to go in, I’m going to wear a mask and I’ll be physically distant.” Would I tell her absolutely don’t go? No, I don’t think so. I would let her make up her own mind.
I’m curious about vaccines and sports. Athletes and leagues got tests early in the pandemic when they weren’t available to others. Do you think athletes and leagues should be allowed toward the front of the line on vaccines?
On vaccination? No.
I think you’ve got to be careful about that. First of all, I don’t rule on that. I think as we get into 2021, and there’s a lot of vaccine available for anybody, I don’t think it’ll be an issue. But in the early stages of vaccine distribution, often you have to prioritize. And when you prioritize, that’s when you get a group of ethicists, vaccinologists, community representatives, people who understand public health to make a recommendation. I don’t know what the recommendation is going to be. But I do know that if it follows how things have gone in the past, when there’s been the recommendation for the prioritization of scarce public health interventions, they usually go with essential personnel.
Those are usually health-care workers and emergency responders, because those are the ones who put themselves in harm’s way and a greater risk of getting infected. So they should be up there. Others should be people who have underlying conditions, namely the elderly, people who have conditions that may make it much more likely that they’d have a serious outcome, people for the important jobs to keep society going.
I think you’d have to have a discussion as whether playing baseball or a sport is considered an essential occupation. I think a lot of people would argue that they’re not an essential occupation.
SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL