Major League Baseball's problems with COVID-19 testing evolved into a crisis Monday when the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros became at least the third and fourth teams to cancel or postpone a workout due to the failure of MLB, its testing service and lab to furnish results in a timely manner.
According to health protocols agreed upon by MLB and the MLB Players' Association, players are to be tested every other day and receive results within 24 to 48 hours. Access to timely, accurate testing has been viewed by health experts as crucial to sports leagues' plans to re-start, to isolate players who test positive for the coronavirus and prevent community spread among players.
Players were to report to home stadiums by July 1 for intake testing and be ready for workouts as early as Friday. MLB on Friday released results of intake testing that noted 38 players (1.2% of 3,185 samples) tested positive upon arrival.
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But those numbers were clearly incomplete and premature, as dozens of players had not yet received results of intake testing and thus were sidelined from early workouts.
Faults in the testing system were badly exposed over the holiday weekend.
Sunday, the Oakland Athletics cancelled their first full-squad workout because position players' samples had not even been shipped to the Salt Lake City lab MLB contracted with to process test samples. Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle told reporters Sunday he had not received results of a test taken Friday.
And come Monday, those results were still not available, prompting Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to cancel the club's fourth workout and issue a blistering statement excoriating MLB for the shortfalls.
“Per MLB’s protocol, all players and staff were tested for Covid-19 on Friday, July 3rd.
Rizzo said. "Seventy-two hours later, we have yet to receive the results of those tests. We cannot have our players and staff work at risk. Therefore, we have cancelled our team workout scheduled for this morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp.
"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.”
Sunday, A's general manager David Forst conveyed similar sentiments Sunday in a WhatsApp message to his players obtained by USA TODAY Sports. The message read, in part:
“Thanks again to you all for your understanding on the need to postpone today’s workout for the position players. Unfortunately, that is not the end of this story. MLB has informed me this evening that our test samples from Friday have not arrived at the lab. They were not delivered as intended on Saturday because of the federal holiday and then were not switched to Sunday delivery in time to arrive today. As of this moment, they are sitting at (San Francisco International Airport) waiting to fly to Salt Lake to be delivered to the lab by 1:30 Mountain Time (Monday). On top of screwing up the logistics of this whole thing, neither MLB nor CDT (the company that collects the samples) communicated any of this to us until we pressed them for information, at which point all they could do was apologize, which frankly doesn’t really do much for us.
"I can tell you all what I expressed to Matt (Chapman) earlier today: this has nothing to do with us or our staff. The athletic training and stadium operations staffs here have worked tirelessly to get this incredibly challenging operation up and running. At this point, the blame lies with CDT and MLB and I won’t cover for them like I did earlier today. Despite having our schedule a week ahead of time, they didn’t alert us to the possibility of any complications around July 4th, and once there were issues, they did nothing to communicate that to us or remedy the situation...If possible, I’m as frustrated and pissed as you are (well, probably not as pissed as Matt is), and I assure you the rest of the staff is as well.”
Meanwhile, The Athletic reported that the Los Angeles Angels postponed their Monday workout from 9 a.m. PT to noon to accommodate delayed test results, and that sample collectors did not show up to Angel Stadium, prompting players to issue their own saliva samples and have the team ship it to the lab in Utah.
MLB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said on a conference call Monday that he was tested last Tuesday, but not again until Sunday.
"I know there will be hiccups," he said, "but you can't have hiccups with this."
The window for players and teams to ramp up for the season was already tight, as MLB plans to open a 60-game season July 23 and 24. Now, there is signficant variance among teams' ability to work out, as the A's have yet to hold a full squad workout while the Yankees plan to play an intrasquad game Monday night at Yankee Stadium.
MLB and the MLBPA's agreement to try and contest the 2020 season gave players the right to opt out of the season - with full pay and service time if the player had an underlying health condition. So far, eight players - including former Cy Young winners David Price and Felix Hernandez - have opted out. Former MVPs Mike Trout and Buster Posey have reported to camp but said they're not certain they'll go through with playing. As many as 70 players have tested positive for COVID-19 either in pre-intake or intake screening.
The most notable among the roughly 30 players whose positive tests were revealed is Braves All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman, who has been experiencing symptoms.
While many labs, such as Quest Diagnostics, have reported significant backlogs in processing COVID-19 tests — turning a one- or two-day turnaround into as much as a five-day turnaround — Major League Baseball hoped to work around that by utilizing its existing drug-testing infrastructure.
Samples were to be collected by officials from Comprehensive Drug Testing, the group that conducts regular and random testing for performance-enhancing drugs in spring training, the regular season and offseason. The samples would then be shipped to the Sports Medicine Research & Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City, which typically processes the drug tests and gave assurances to MLB it could do the same at the scale required for COVID-19 testing.
Contributing: Bob Nightengale, Tom Schad