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MLB Must Be Transparent About COVID-19 Testing

Financially speaking, MLB and the players badly want to reach October. That's why a third party should be brought in to oversee COVID-19 testing.

Seven days into MLB’s restart, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has not reported to camp. Neither has A's starter Jesús Luzardo. Neither has Phillies utilityman Christian Bethancourt. Their teams will not tell us why, or when they’ll be back in uniform. They could be suffering from migraines. They could have food poisoning. Or they could have COVID-19. 

As the league and the players’ association attempt to begin this abbreviated season, they have agreed that teams will not disclose the COVID-19 status of employees without their consent. These people certainly have a right to medical privacy. But without more accountability, fans are left with a situation such as the one they endured on Friday, when MLB and the MLBPA jointly released a statement asserting that only 38 of the 3,815 samples had tested positive. That’s only 1.2%! crowed reporters. That’s great!

It would be, if it were a representative data point. At least 10 teams had not finished their intake testing by the time MLB and the PA released the numbers. At least nine teams still had not finished it on Sunday. And even the teams that had could not be sure they would receive results: The Angels had to delay their workout on Monday because the people who were scheduled to administer the second round of tests never arrived at their facility. The A’s, Astros, Cardinals and Nationals canceled workouts on Monday when they did not get results back in time.

“Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk,” said Nats GM Mike Rizzo.

MLB released a statement that read in part, “We have addressed the delays caused by the holiday weekend and do not expect a recurrence. We commend the affected Clubs that responded properly by cancelling workouts.”

But The Washington Post reported that Commissioner Rob Manfred “jumped on" Rizzo, which gives some indication of the league’s priorities. 

In the meantime, some players have already begun expressing exasperation. Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts said on Monday, “I can’t say that I’m confident” that the league can stage this season. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said on Monday, “If we can't really nail the easy part—which is right now, just our players—we have a big problem.” Washington lefty Sean Doolittle took his second test before he got the results of his first, he said on Sunday. “We’ve got to clean that up, right?” he added.
Yes. And it starts with data the public can trust. 

The simplest solution would be for teams to release the names of players they add to the COVID-19 Related Injured List. At the moment, if a player tests positive, is under evaluation or has possibly been exposed to someone who tested positive, his club adds him to the COVID IL, announces the transaction generically as an addition to the IL and replaces him on the roster. Theoretically, no one—including opponents—will know what caused his time off. (In practice, this is not going to work very well. Reporters will ask players when they return to action why they were gone; fans will assume the worst regardless.) If they wanted to, the league and the union could agree to make the COVID IL public.

But the players balk at the idea of having their medical records on display. Besides, points out Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., the founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU, “The goal is to get them to release honest numbers, not sacrifice patient privacy.”
He suggests that the owners and the players appoint a third party to oversee the regular release of the aggregate testing data. “I think everybody is slanted toward, Let’s proceed,” he says. “Get me independent testimony from doctors saying these numbers are true.”

Otherwise, the opportunities for mischief are manifold. The players don’t get paid if they don’t play games. The owners don’t make their real money until the postseason TV contracts kick in. So everyone wants to make it to October—at which point it becomes even harder to do the right thing. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine last month found that as many as 45% of people with COVID could be asymptomatic. If the starter of Game 1 of the World Series feels fine and gets tested the morning before the game, will anyone who draws checks from MLB really be hurrying to get him his results within 48 hours? 

The parties spent three months squabbling through the press about money, but they are finally united: Both sides are too incentivized to make this season seem as if it’s going well, regardless of the truth.