If MLB really wants to stop its Covid outbreak, it should quarantine the whole Marlins team

As I noted yesterday in one of my updates to this post, MLB’s response to the Miami Marlins coronavirus outbreak has a built-in dilemma: Each team has a taxi squad of additional players ready to go, but how do you decide whether it’s safe to commingle them with the remaining players who haven’t tested positive but were exposed to those who have, especially when it can take as long as four days to start testing positive after infection? Really, the whole point of test-and-trace protocols is to get not just those who test positive to quarantine, but anyone else who might have been infected — Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney has suggested that the Marlins should really all quarantine for two weeks now, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who played against the Marlins this past weekend, should quarantine for five days, which seems reasonable from a public health standpoint, but seems unlikely for a league trying to avoid a patchwork season that ends up looking like the final standings from 1875.

So while we’re at it, how did MLB plan for an outbreak like this, anyway, and what do its protocols say about what to do now? Let’s go to the league’s famed 101-page document with its rules for social distancing while showering and see what it says.

In the section on testing, the document specifies that all players will be tested “multiple times per week,” with additional “immediate expedited diagnostic tests” for anyone who is symptomatic or has been in contact with a confirmed Covid case. Those who test positive “must immediately wear a face covering, isolate from all people (other than medical professionals, as necessary, who shall employ the appropriate infection prevention and control practice for interaction with positive individuals) and pets [ed. note: !!!]” and “restrict all activities outside the home” until given the all-clear.

For those who test negative, though, there doesn’t appear to be any further requirement for quarantine, even though a negative test could just mean that the individual hasn’t yet developed enough virus to show up on a test. In fact, other human beings are considered to be significantly less dangerous than pieces of furniture, which must quarantine from “high-risk individuals” for three days after contact with someone with a positive Covid test:

For at least 72 hours following confirmation of the positive test result, no High-Risk Individual (as defined in Section 2.4) may enter any area within a Club facility in which the Covered Individual who tested positive has recently spent time, without prior written approval from MLB’s medical advisors (with respect to Club personnel) or the Joint Committee (with respect to players).

I am not a doctor or an epidemiologist by any means, but this seems awfully like hygiene theater, where you throw a bunch of protocols at the wall and hope that nobody questions whether they’re actually enough to make a difference in the spread of the disease. And since I am not an epidemiologist, I asked one, Susan Hassig of Tulane University, who agreed that really the whole current Marlins roster should be out of commission for a week or two:

“The team should all be quarantined individually for at least a week, without contact with each other as well as their community. You could then test them all again, and possibly then allow negs back on the field. But two weeks quarantine is standard.”

Back to Binney, this time in The Athletic (paywalled, but it was quoted in Marc Normandin’s newsletter, which is also paywalled, but people gotta eat):

“This disease can take several days to show itself – by which I mean you don’t test positive immediately after you’ve been exposed. You test positive three, five, seven days after you’ve been exposed. So it’s possible that some of these players or staff are incubating the infection right now and could turn up positive when they get the results back from another round of testing, say, in a couple of days.”

And Binney again, on Twitter (again h/t to Marc for the link):

Note that Binney is not calling for the entire MLB season to be shut down; he is calling for the current Marlins roster to be quarantined until we know that they’re not all in the process of seroconverting. This is established science for how you stop an outbreak from spreading — whether within baseball or in a larger community — even if it might be inconvenient in terms of scheduling baseball games.

No new news yet this morning on MLB’s plans, as it looks like they’re going to wait for the results of yesterday’s Marlins testing before making any kind of announcement. Meanwhile, Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez, who had a heart procedure last fall, said he’s “scared” and “my level of concern went from an eight to a 12,” while Marlins manager Don Mattingly noted after Sunday’s game (before the additional positive tests that “They can honestly refuse not to play, right? Everybody could opt out today.” That would be a really weird way for baseball to make public health decisions, but given that the Marlins decided on whether it was safe to play Sunday’s game by texting their shortstop, probably about par for the course.

UPDATE: Oh boy.


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6 comments on “If MLB really wants to stop its Covid outbreak, it should quarantine the whole Marlins team

  1. I’m sure the commissioners office will be right on this. The rules clearly state that SARS-CoV-2 may not be retransmitted without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.

    The only question is if they’ll ban SARS-CoV-2 for life or just give it a 50 day suspension.

  2. We know this is ultimately all about money.

    And they may just shrug and move on and “roll the dice”…and maybe they get lucky this time.

    But what happens if they manage to make it through the 60 games and we’re mid-way through the playoffs and a hot contender suddenly has a bunch of players get sick? Maybe a larger market team like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers?

    Would they stop then? Or follow the same strategy?

    Just curious if that would look different. Today the financials are about playing at all. Later, it might be about that team and it’s impact to the bottom line.

    1. If they kept a true separate between the practice and main squad there is always the possibility of just quarantining the main squad and then promoting the travel squad until they are all cleared. The AAAAA team would play two to three weeks, but the games would go on and people wouldn’t like it but that is why they put that system in place.

      Also I don’t think this will happen because I doubt they kept the needed separation.

      1. Scanning the transactions, it doesn’t look like the Marlins have shifted any players between their major- and minor-league squads since the season started. Though of course no one knows when the Marlins players contracted this, and before Friday I’m pretty sure both squads were intermingled anyway, so that may not actually help.

  3. …and just like that, the marlins season is “temporarily paused” and they’ll look at the situation again next Monday.

    I love how the nationals players voted not to play the marlins this coming weekend, and the mlb said they couldn’t do that…after telling the marlins to do just that before they played their last game.

    Meanwhile the Yankees and Orioles will play a series. Does that mean they could end up over 60 games, while the marlins are under that number?

    1. 1875! 1875!

      (Though both the Orioles and Yankees had series canceled that these games are replacing, so they won’t end up over 60 games regardless.)

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