From IPL and football to hockey and even the Olympics, global sports executives and Sports Ministry officials say organisers should ensure that all players, support staff and the officials involved are tested for COVID-19 before mass events are restarted — and not focus only on holding matches behind closed doors.
However, medical experts say it’s not easy. They foresee practical problems with mass testing, thus diminishing the chances of an early start to sporting action around the world.
With no clear timeframe available, various tournament organisers — including the BCCI that conducts IPL, cricket’s biggest event — have been exploring the possibility of conducting matches in empty venues. But hockey’s gameplan will depend on testing, International Hockey Federation chief executive Thierry Weil told The Indian Express.
“I am convinced that sooner than later, a vaccine will be found. And then, you can go back to normal. Until then, I am sure what will happen is, before going on a field of play, or playing again, everybody — not only the sports side but everybody — will have to be tested,” he said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has put off the Tokyo Games in June by a year, said they will follow “risk management and mitigation measures set out by the WHO for mass gatherings”. Screening and testing are among the key recommendations in the WHO’s guidelines.
The Sports Ministry, too, is planning to test its athletes before allowing them to enter Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres after the lockdown is lifted.
But medical experts feel that, even without fans, the idea of mass testing may not be practical during tournaments, where at least 200 people will be present, including players, coaching staff, match officials, medical personnel and the media. “The testing process at the moment takes around five to seven days. Two tests are conducted during this period and only when both are negative, we can conclude that the person is not infected,” says Dr Damanjit Chadha, an internal medicine specialist. “During this duration, they should be totally isolated. So the idea to test everyone is very theoretical.”
Dr Yash Gulati, a consultant orthopedic surgeon at Apollo Hospital added: “Mass testing is a secondary option… It is a stupid idea to even start any sporting event the way things are right now. Once things settle down, once other activities are started, then maybe we can do that.”
According to Sports Ministry officials, one of the options is to set up isolation wards at major SAI centres, where training camps have been suspended. “At major centres, for example, when athletes come to train, they will first have to be tested for the virus, irrespective of where they are coming from. If two consecutive tests come negative (as per Health Ministry protocols), they can enter the centre. If there is a positive test, the athlete will be placed under quarantine in the isolation ward. This is one of the ideas,” the official said.
“We might have to start with a few centres where we have isolation facilities. At places where we have limited accommodation, we might hire adjacent premises,” the official said.
Most national federations say they will follow the guidelines laid out by world governing bodies. The IOC, in an emailed statement, said: “We will follow the risk management and mitigation measures set out by the World Health Organization (WHO) for mass gatherings in the context of the current COVID-19 outbreak.”
The five-page guideline, issued on March 19, details the steps that need to be taken, with focus on surveillance and testing. “We are committed to following this principle in the future,” the IOC said.
As the coronavirus began spreading across the word over the last two months, organisers had floated the idea of resuming games without fans. Recently, Aleksander Ceferin, the president of UEFA — European football’s governing body — said: “It is still better to play the game behind closed doors and have it on TV, which is what the people need and want because it brings positive energy to their homes than not playing at all.”
The IPL is looking at a September-October window before the T20 World Cup. And team owners were involved in discussions with the cricket board last month to explore the idea of conducting the games minus spectators.
Rajasthan Royals co-owner Manoj Badale had told BBC: “These are unprecedented times and sport needs to be put in the right perspective overall. If the way of ensuring the cricket economy survives is by playing behind closed doors, so be it.”
But world hockey CEO Weil said caution is now the need of the hour. “In my personal view, it is obvious that you need to test literally everybody to find out who was contaminated to make sure the virus doesn’t spread. So before potentially playing a game, players will need to be tested just to see there is no contamination between the two teams on the field of play,” he said.
‘Should not even think to start sport… relapse reported in Wuhan, Korea’
Can sporting events begin even after three or four months?
Dr Damanjit Chadha, an internal medicine specialist at Fortis, believes ‘right now, it should not even be thought of.’
“We are getting daily reports of re-infections in Wuhan, and even in Korea. There were reports that the situation was totally clear there but two days ago, patients started showing symptoms again and tested positive again. They say that it may be a relapse. Maybe in the next six weeks, we will be much wiser about how things are going to unfold.”
Till then, according to Dr Yash Gulati, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Apollo Hospital, it is ‘impossible’ to hold an event. “It is a stupid idea to even start any sporting event the way things are right now, with or without spectators. Maybe, once things settle down, once other activities are started.”
Is testing all players, support staff and organisers – making it roughly 200 people – at a venue practical?
Dr Gulati says sparing 200-odd testing kits ‘should not be an issue’ if events start three-four months from now. However, there could be logistical challenges. “Two tests are conducted in a span of five-to-seven days and only when both are negative, can we conclude that the person is not infected,” Dr Chadha says. “During this duration, they should be totally isolated. So, the idea to test everyone is very theoretical.” He, however, says antibody tests, which give results in a shorter time, can be an alternative.
What if someone tests positive?
A sports ministry official said they are considering having isolation wards at major Sports Authority of India centres in case such a scenario takes place at one of their facilities. There is no clarity yet on what happens if someone will test positive before a tournament or a match.
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