Some athletes more at risk during pandemic than others
Kathleen Baker, 23, a gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer, began wearing masks on airplanes long before the coronavirus outbreak began to avoid contracting illnesses that are especially hard for her to shake off because she has Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation in the digestive system.
Jordan Morris, 25, a soccer player for the Seattle Sounders and the U.S. men’s national team, wears a blood sugar monitor on his arm — even on the field — to keep track of his Type 1 diabetes.
And Dusty Baker, a former player and now the manager of the Houston Astros, has endured many health complications: prostate cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, an irregular heartbeat and a ministroke.
They have managed their underlying health conditions to enjoy successful careers in sports. But now, with the coronavirus disproportionately afflicting those with such issues, their personal risks, and those of many other athletes and team staff members, are primed to escalate as the gradual reopening of America feeds momentum for a return of a sports.
Sports leagues are devising plans to resume play to salvage economic lifelines and sate fans pleading to be entertained by live games on TV.
Yet in the absence of a vaccine or widespread immunity, any return to the field of play poses some added risks for athletes and officials. And many are balancing potential exposure to the coronavirus and their health needs against the zeal to play.
“It’s scary for everyone,” Morris said after taking part in the voluntary, socially distanced practices that began this past week throughout Major League Soccer, which plans to resume its season as soon as next month.
“The unknown of the coronavirus, and there’s so many unknowns, like when the vaccine will come and all that kind of stuff,” Morris continued. “There’s definitely that underlying sense of uncertainty.”
As of Friday, unions representing athletes in major North American team sports were still negotiating specific plans for returning to play.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people 65 and older or anyone with a serious underlying medical condition “might be at higher risk for severe illness” from the coronavirus.
Dr. Preeti Malani, the chief health officer for the University of Michigan and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases, said there was still much to learn about how the virus can affect anyone.
“My own personal advice would be to perhaps sit out and wait until you have more information,” said Malani, who has been advising the Big Ten Conference about the pandemic. “But that’s a hard thing to do when your job depends on it, whether you’re driving a bus or working in a restaurant or you’re a Major League Baseball player.”
As part of their plans to reopen, leagues are devising specific precautions for the most vulnerable returning employees. In a proposal on safety and testing procedures presented last week to its players’ union, MLB suggested before any resumption of training each club’s doctor identify high-risk players, coaches and essential staff members — plus anyone who comes into regular contact with someone considered high risk.
Some of the suggestions to protect higher-risk players and essential staff members included separate spaces in dugouts and clubhouses; distinct or less crowded travel options; or shifting to remote work or modified hours.