NFL bettors are breathing a sigh of relief this week after 77 false positive results for the coronavirus triggered temporary fears over the season.
While isolated lab contamination was deemed the cause, there’s less-heralded news about a breakthrough in quick-turnaround testing that would benefit Las Vegas sportsbooks by preserving the NFL and college seasons and aid the return of some much-needed group meetings in 2021 just as a vaccine is expected to be rolled out.
Sports fans can thank Yale University and the NBA for the saliva test for COVID-19 that greatly expands testing capacity at a retail cost of $10 with a quick turnaround.
That would especially be a great option for college football programs which would have the ability to do more testing and isolate an infected player away from the team promptly instead of letting COVID-19 spread like it did in MLB.
It’s not only about sports.
Yale COVID-19 test is a breakthrough for MLW and sports https://t.co/Dsn4RseApA
— MLW (@MLW) August 18, 2020
Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox said on an earnings call a quick turnaround test would allow group business and conventions return sooner than expected. Groups and conventions, which are vital to mid-week occupancy in Las Vegas, are currently holding off until spring and the second half of 2021. Quick-turnaround testing would allow smaller groups to book events sooner, he said.
“I believe if we can have on-site, point-of-care testing that provides pools where you can do 10 people at a time with a five-minute turnaround, that changes the game for groups,” Maddox said. “Maybe you’re not waiting until mid-next year if you can have testing that shows everyone walking into this space is COVID-free.”
Brian Labus, an epidemiologist with the UNLV School of Public Health and a member of the medical team advising the state, said the new test could help because people would get a result before they attended. There’s always a question of test accuracy, however, which continues to be an issue for other tests.
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“It will remove some of the people that are positive,” Labus said. “It won’t be all of them, and you would still need to be socially distancing and wearing a mask. It’s something that can be part of the discussion when those tests are widely available.”
Labus said the new tests could have a big impact on football and baseball that aren’t playing in a bubble setting like the NBA and NHL.
“It would allow them to have a much safer environment for their athletes,” Labus said. “Right now they’re testing, but there’s a delay between when the test is collected and you get the results. You could have people that are positive where you haven’t gotten that result yet. They’re still participating and exposing others.
“If we can get a test that gives us the answer very soon after the specimen is collected rather than a day or two later, you could be more comfortable saying that it is unlikely there are positive people playing the sport. That would be better for the testing programs for the NFL, college football and Major League Baseball.”
COVID-19 has been a growing concern for college football with campuses where there are thousands of people and students coming together.
“That could be an important piece of the puzzle if they can use a daily test that was inexpensive and accurate,” Labus said. “You would be able to make better decisions about the risk every single day.”
The key will be producing those tests and making them widely available this fall, Labus said. The later the season starts, the more likely that testing will be scaled up.
As for the NFL, Labus said he has the same concerns over what baseball has been going through with players testing positive, quarantined and games postponed.
“A single positive on a team means multiple people are exposed,” Labus said. “With the NFL traveling and having that many people involved, especially compared to baseball, there’s a bigger chance you will have more infections on the team. It might be a little worse than what baseball is seeing.”
Labus said those positive tests can be overcome in football as long as an entire unit such as an offensive line wasn’t taken out because of it. If it was scattered positions, players could step in and fill the void, he added. Otherwise, some games like with baseball, might be postponed, but unlike MLB the NFL can’t make up games in a doubleheader, he said.
“The best approach is to do what the NBA and NHL is doing, which is keeping your players in a bubble, but that’s not something that’s logistically feasible for the NFL,” Labus said. “The problems we have seen in baseball is players going out and partying. With the NFL, you have the same issues, and players have to take it seriously and minimize their exposure outside of football. That’s not an easy thing to do when you are talking about thousands of people.
“I think it will be difficult to play their full schedule without some disruptions from this virus. Even if they do play, you will see different lineups on the field because players test positive. Hopefully they can keep it to a minimum where the disruptions aren’t huge.”
College football faces the biggest challenge because players come in contact with others on campus and in classrooms — students who have been partying and putting themselves at risk. Some of those states don’t have mask mandates or encourage social distancing that can slow transmission, he said.
The best alternative is to have colleges do online classes, which some are doing now, and allow players to remain on campus and manage them in sort of a bubble, Labus said.
Those anticipating the start of college football who have already seen the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences cancel their seasons can only hope.