'The line should go away': As restrictions ease, pro athletes are on deck for COVID-19 vaccination

Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY
·7 min read

After a year of external criticism and internal debate over draining resources from at-risk and essential members of society amid a global pandemic, North America’s sports industry may soon arrive at a point where the notion of “skipping the line” for COVID-19 vaccines is no longer a concern.

It’s even possible, public-health experts say, that they should assemble at the front.

With three vaccinations in distribution, a fourth awaiting approval and the USA now vaccinating residents at a rate of 3 million per day, states are increasingly loosening requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Monday, the state of Arizona announced any resident 16 or older will be eligible for vaccination at state-run sites beginning Wednesday in Yuma, Pima and Maricopa counties.

Fifteen of 30 Major League Baseball franchises are currently decamped throughout Maricopa County for spring training, and hundreds of ballplayers live year-round in the Phoenix area. In one week, they’ll break camp in Arizona and Florida and embark on a six-month, 162-game season that will take them across the country, coming into contact with hundreds of bus drivers, airline workers and hotel personnel and others.

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Meanwhile, the NBA and NHL’s indoor seasons – both significantly upended by COVID-19 cases in the absence of a bubble – are warily lurching toward their playoffs.

While the vast majority of these athletes are young and healthy, and the essentiality of their work – they’re just games, albeit ones that distract and entertain – is up for debate, there’s no denying the jobs can’t be performed while staying at home.

And the point on the axis where available vaccine and vaccinating those whose work requires frequent contact is drawing closer to professional athletes.

“We’re getting to where we’re past the point of discussing high risk groups and instead, let’s vaccinate everyone we can,” says Dr. Jill Roberts, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of South Florida. “And let’s hit the groups that are more likely to spread that than those most likely to die from it. I think we’ve done a pretty good job on at-risk groups.

“We should be at the point of removing those barriers. It doesn’t really come down to what the profession of the players is at all. It comes down to, ‘Will they be likely be spreaders?’

“I don’t think they should have to skip a line. I think the line should go away.”

If that’s the case, where, exactly, do the athletes line up?

The Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers did so, essentially, in their own locker room: Fourteen of 17 Hawks players and 36 basketball operations members overall were vaccinated after a March 19 game; all who were vaccinated met Georgia standards to qualify for the vaccine, which for players included a body mass index exceeding 25.

Monday, the Blazers announced 13 players received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, gaining access, they said in a statement, to an "excess supply of vaccines through the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who began offering the vaccine to the general public in February as a way to help Oregon, and the Nation, move past the pandemic."

Multiple New Orleans Pelicans players were vaccinated March 14, days after some eligibility restrictions were loosened in Louisiana.

Older coaches and managers, such as the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich (who turned 72 in January) and Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker (71) have confirmed their vaccinations.

As for the 800 to 1,000 MLB players about to disperse coast to coast for a summerlong tour of America?

According to a baseball official with direct knowledge of MLB’s thinking, vaccinations will be state-based and handled on a team-by-team basis. The league will strongly urge, but not require, players and staff to get vaccinated once state regulations allow access.

The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the policies publicly.

Mr. and Mrs. Met at the opening of Citi Field as a vaccination site in February.
Mr. and Mrs. Met at the opening of Citi Field as a vaccination site in February.

Production and distribution of the vaccine have ramped up far quicker than the proliferation and processing of COVID-19 tests, the biggest hurdle to sports’ return in the early months of the pandemic.

Testing presented dilemmas both functional and moral – the NBA, NHL and WNBA’s bulletproof bubbles and MLB’s bumpy but ultimately successful uncontrolled environment required daily, rapid testing at a time the coronavirus ravaged the country and thousands of Americans’ test results were rendered useless due to lengthy processing times.

The path to vaccination has been smoother.

Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor for COVID-19 response, said over the weekend that two-thirds of seniors have been vaccinated. President Joe Biden’s goal to open vaccinations to all Americans 16 and older by May 1 has been adopted by 24 states. Yet that goal was admittedly conservative, allowing states to create their own, more aggressive timelines.

And they have: The governors of Michigan, Connecticut and Iowa - two Democrats and a Republican – announced an April 5 opening of vaccines to all residents 16 and older. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) did them one better, pushing that date to March 24.

Tuesday, the state of Texas announced vaccines will be available to all adults, beginning March 29.

Cities and counties have taken matters into their own hands, too, with Orlando mayor Jerry Demings opening a mass vaccination site at his city's convention center for residents 40 and older, drawing the ire of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The shifting guidelines come as some vaccine batches go unused and concern over COVID-19 variants grow.

Roberts says the highly contagious United Kingdom variant is responsible for more than 60% of recent cases among students and staff at South Florida.

“We need to stop these variants,” she says. “And to do that, we have to vaccinate the spreaders.”

That’s not to say those eligible will offer up their arm for a shot.

“I don’t really see myself getting it any time soon, unless I’m forced to,” Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins said Monday night.

Hours earlier Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner – best known to casual fans as the guy who broke isolation and celebrated, maskless, a World Series title with teammates minutes after receiving a positive COVID-19 test result – sounded less than effusive about backing up whatever antibodies he may possess with a vaccine.

“I definitely will think about it. I still have the antibodies,” says Turner, who tested positive Oct. 27. “There are some conversations with the training staff on the pros and cons about getting it or waiting to see how long my antibodies last, so I don’t know yet.

“It’s a personal decision. It’s not up to me to talk about what guys are going to do and not going to do.’’

Plenty who labored under coronavirus outbreaks and protocols are hoping relief comes quickly and willingly; after 11 MLB stadiums played host to mass vaccination sites, some shots should soon land in the arms of those who perform inside them.

“I look at us just like the rest of the country – the more people that (get vaccinated), the more comfortable people are,” says Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, whose team lost 18 players to positive COVID-19 tests just days into the 2020 season, as he clutched his neck gaiter. “Would love to not have these things on all day long, in my office, everywhere else.

“I think we just want, as an industry, and as a country, that we get on top of this, we’re safer, people are more comfortable. I’m sure everybody would like to have something in their life to improve upon with COVID.”

Contributing: Jeff Zillgitt

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pro athletes on deck for COVID-19 vaccine: Should they be priority?