An infectious disease expert says the NHL’s first positive test for COVID-19 doesn’t come as a surprise.
It’s also an example of why social distancing is crucial in the fight to slow the widening pandemic that’s sweeping large chunks of the globe.
The Ottawa Senators announced late Tuesday one of their players had contracted the novel coronavirus. The team said the individual, who hasn’t been identified publicly, had mild symptoms and is in isolation.
According to Dr. Gerald Evans, the positive test serves as a reminder to heed the advice from public health and government officials about avoiding crowded areas, keeping a buffer between people and working from home when possible.
“This is a really nice example,” said Evans, the chair of the infectious disease division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “It’s important to remember that somebody like this [player] who was identified was probably infected anywhere from one to two weeks ago [when] there were still games being played.
“The Senators, as well as other teams they were in contact with, are likely to have facilitated some sort of transmission.”
Played in California against advisement
Ottawa played in San Jose, Calif., against the Sharks on March 7 despite the county where the SAP Center is located recommending no large public gatherings days earlier. It was one of three NHL games held in San Jose after the recommendation was made.
The Senators then had two days off in California before meeting the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings on consecutive nights. Ottawa’s game at the Staples Center last Wednesday came 24 hours after the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets — who announced Tuesday that four players had tested positive for COVID-19 — played at the same arena against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Ducks and Kings both released statements Wednesday night saying that none of their players have tested positive for COVID-19.
The NHL, along with most other sports leagues and organizations in North America, paused its season late last week after Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. Six other NBA players, including one of Gobert’s teammates, have also tested positive.
The Senators, who notified everyone that had known close contact with the member of the team in question, provided an update Wednesday, saying medical personnel is “actively monitoring players and staff and following all appropriate and professional guidelines to help ensure the health and safety of our employees and the greater community.”
“Players are being accessed and tested under the supervision of public health authorities,” the team said in an email. “All Ottawa Senators players and staff who recently travelled were instructed to self-quarantine on Saturday and do not pose a public health risk to the community.”
But as Evans points out, that’s only been the case since the isolation started.
“These guys travel a lot,” he said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “They’re in contact with large numbers of people during their travels, and as a necessity in interactions they have with other teams.
“That’s the kind of prime setup we know that can lead to typical transmission of this virus. It’s not highly transmissible, but readily transmissible between people.”
Reasonable to expect more cases in NHL
Most people diagnosed with the coronavirus experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. The vast majority of those recover, and according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the risk to the general population is low.
But for some, including those 65 years of age and over, those with compromised immune systems or those with pre-existing conditions, the illness can be much more severe. Among the Canadians diagnosed with the illness, so far fewer than 15 per cent have required hospitalization.
Evans said it’s reasonable to expect more NHL players will test positive for COVID-19 in the coming days and weeks.
And social distancing could play a key role in determining how far the virus spreads.
“We know that as this moves along, more and more of the general population is likely to be infected,” Evans said. “I want everybody to take this seriously — do all that social distancing and all the rest. Celebrities like athletes are going to pop up [with the virus], but so are regular people that everyone knows in their day-to-day life.
“I need to just make sure that people realize this will eventually end at some point.”