Major League Baseball hopes to be able to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to players and staff itself. But with the vaccine rollout already in chaos across the country, it’s not clear if that will be the most efficient distribution method by the time athletes are eligible.
A couple — and soon potentially at least one more — rapidly developed vaccines stand to rescue the country from nearly a year of relative lockdown amid surging coronavirus cases. Eventually, immunization will allow baseball fans to return to stadiums and baseball players to roll back the protocols under which they eked out 60 games last summer. But exactly how and where — not to mention exactly when — young, healthy adults will be able to receive the vaccine is murky.
For the most part, baseball players and the younger team staff will fall into the last cohort to be vaccinated: young, healthy adults who don’t work in health care or essential frontline services. By then, vaccines should be available in the community from several sources including local pharmacies and mass vaccine sites (like the ones that have been announced at Dodger Stadium and Citi Field).
“But it's still the plan when supply is robust to work with employers and to help employers to just vaccinate all their employees,” said Claire Hannan, head of the Association of Immunization Managers.
That’s a route MLB could go, essentially becoming a private provider that would receive the vaccine directly from local governments. It would entail demonstrating that they could store and administer the vaccine correctly — which is not an insignificant barrier, at least for the one of the current iterations that is stored and transported in batches of 975 doses that have to be kept at ultracold temperatures. Perhaps more importantly, either the league itself or individual teams would have to enroll as providers in each state and be subject to that state’s timeline for distribution.
In other words, it would be difficult if not impossible to coordinate vaccination across teams. Spring training, with players converging in two states, could have alleviated that particular complication. However, at the current rate of rollout and assuming an on-time spring training, it is highly unlikely that Florida or Arizona will be vaccinating athletes before the end of March.
“So, it's complicated, and it's hard to know what to expect,” Hannan said. “I think we all thought that hospitals and private providers would get that first wave of vaccine out at the same time production would be ramping up — we get more supply we spread it across more providers — and we're not seeing that. We're seeing that hospitals are having challenges getting the vaccine out in a timely way, we're seeing that production is not ramping up.”
After vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were given emergency approval at the end of 2020, the plan was to administer 20 million doses (immunization requires two doses several weeks apart) before the new year. The actual numbers fell far short, and even now, two weeks in the new year, only a little more than 12 million doses have been administered.
Now, plans are changing on the fly. In response to that initial slow rollout and the rising tide of hospitalizations and deaths, many states are expanding the eligibility to include broader populations — potentially increasing the overall rate of immunization but also introducing new logistical logjams and mass confusion.
Experts are optimistic, or at least hopeful, that these are still just growing pains of learning how to shepherd a federally sponsored vaccine from manufacturer to state to provider to patient. Even with the setbacks, Hannan says we should soon be administering a million doses a day nationwide (we’re getting close, although it’s still the anomaly). And if the current system can achieve and maintain that output, it might prove to be much simpler for players to simply sign up for a vaccine in their home state once it’s available to them rather than further complicate the process by introducing MLB as a provider.
“I think from the perspective of the employer,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “if it's super easy to go to a pharmacy, I don't know whether you need to do it.”
Why MLB can’t jump the line
Ethical and equitable distribution of the life-saving vaccine has been a critical and at times controversial issue. The rich are reportedly trying to throw their money at the issue of immunization while Charles Barkley opines about how it’s not their wealth but their tax bracket that should give athletes priority for the vaccine.
MLB, along with the other sports leagues, has been careful to stipulate that they will wait their turn. “Vaccinations will only be made available to players when public health officials deem it appropriate,” the league told The Athletic recently, the implication being that they will not buy their own vaccines as a way of cutting the line.
They couldn’t even if they wanted to.
“All the vaccines in existence are accounted for, you cannot go out and buy vaccines,” Sharfstein said. The government has contracts with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, as well as the most promising vaccines still in development such as the Johnson & Johnson version, that cover all the existing doses and millions of forthcoming doses.
That said, sports leagues have influence at their disposal that could extend into a murkier space, one that allows them to remain in compliance with “when public health officials deem it appropriate.”
Last April, for example, the WWE was able to secure an “essential business” designation that allowed it to continue operating in Florida amid a lockdown. WWE chairman Vince McMahon is close friends with President Donald Trump, and his wife, Linda McMahon, is the chair of a pro-Trump super-PAC.
“The government is giving it to states. Could a state change its priorities to give the vaccine? In theory it could,” Sharfstein said. “But I don’t know what the justification would be.”
Vaccine education preferred over mandates
Experts don’t know exactly how many people or even what percentage of a population needs to be vaccinated for various activities and aspects of life to return to normal. Instead, public health officials will continue to monitor the community transmission. Right now, it’s not clear if the existing vaccines prevent asymptomatic transmission — only that they protect against infection. And so while it’s important to vaccinate at-risk populations quickly for their own safety, the goal is to stop the spread entirely.
“This is where vaccine acceptance becomes a really critical issue because you really need that high level of vaccine acceptance to get high levels of people immune,” Sharfstein said.
How that will play in MLB clubhouses remains to be seen. With so much at stake, it’s tempting to advocate for vaccine mandates — in baseball and elsewhere. Even if they could or would it’s not so obvious that MLB should require their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, at least not yet.
“I don't think it's time to talk about that,” Hannan said. “First of all you have to have supply to do that. And second of all, you have to have those communities trusting in the vaccine. So I hope we don't start talking about mandates.”
Sharfstein echoed the importance of patience, even in the face of a pandemic. He imagined a future in which proof of vaccination becomes a requirement to attend a baseball game or play on a baseball team, but cautioned against rushing that step now when it’s so critical to persuade potential skeptics to embrace the vaccine.
“You have to be very patient,” he said. “You have to respect people and answer the questions that they have.”
MLB is taking a proactive approach to that part of the process by preparing to educate players on vaccines.
A spokesperson for the league told Yahoo Sports: “MLB and MLBPA is consulting with their Joint COVID-19 Health and Safety Committee and other medical experts in the areas of infectious disease, virology and immunology to develop educational programming on the importance and safety of COVID-19 vaccinations.”
A long road ahead
Any attempt to predict how the pandemic will play out is necessarily speculative. And now, more than ever, we’re on the precipice of what could be substantial change to the national response in the form of the new administration set to take office this week. Experts are clamoring for more federal oversight and assistance and it's reasonable to hope the vaccine rollout will improve over time.
Even still, it’s guaranteed to be a long, complicated and frustratingly incremental process. The dream of a team Vaccine Day ahead of opening day, to simplify the season and keep players safe, is not going to happen. Neither is that perfect carefree day immediately following your own vaccination.
We’re all looking at another summer of precautions and protocols and not-so-patiently waiting our turn. Maybe baseball can establish its own provider system or maybe it will prove to be needlessly complicated if the league can’t pay for priority anyway. But the most important part of the process is that people actually take the vaccine, whenever they can.
“If Major League Baseball players are offered it and hesitate to take it, like, wow, we're really not doing a good job,” Hannan said. “I hope that doesn't happen.”
More from Yahoo Sports: