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MLB can’t keep its promise

The league needs to increase testing to keep players safe, but increasing testing means taking from the public supply.

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Arizona Diamondbacks Summer Workouts Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Part of MLB’s plan to play this season is the promise that testing all required staff for the novel coronavirus won’t take away from the public supply. According to the league, MLB would be creating more tests than they would use. MLB repurposed its PED testing lab in Salt Lake City to It took three months for the United States to reach the recommended minimum of 500,000 tests conducted a day, and though the country has kept that average for the past month, positivity rates suggest that’s not enough.

Only 18 states have a positivity rate below the goal of 5 percent according to data from Johns Hopkins. The positivity rates in some states is much, much higher than that. Texas and Florida are both sitting around 18 percent over the past two weeks while 26.6 percent of tests performed in Arizona come back positive.

That information is distressing enough on its own, and it doesn’t help that Zach Buchanan and Ken Rosenthal reported that the Diamondbacks and other teams have turned to local labs for supplemental testing. The team asserted that these supplemental tests didn’t take from the public supply, but they wouldn’t go into detail about how that could be the case when the state’s positivity rate is five times higher than it should be and five percentage points higher than the next highest state.

The Diamondbacks’ situation reveals the catch-22 of MLB’s testing. If taken at their word, MLB’s testing isn’t taking from the public, but MLB’s testing has been insufficient to ensure the season can be played safely. If they want to increase testing, they will almost certainly have to come out of the public supply (if they aren’t already).

Several teams have had to cancel or delay workouts because test results haven’t been returned in 48 hours. The Nationals and Astros had to cancel workouts last Monday because MLB didn’t properly plan around FedEx not delivering on Independence Day. The Giants had to delay workouts the next day. Six people with the Cubs, including manager David Ross, missed practice this Monday. The season is supposed to start next Thursday and testing still can’t keep up.

Games will be delayed or canceled if things continue in this way, but that’s the least of all concerns. Delaying test results increases the amount of time an infected person can be around players and other staff. Even under normal circumstances, players can be tested in the afternoon, play a game in the evening, and receive a positive result the next morning as was the case with the Royals’ Cam Gallagher. The on-field guidelines will help slow the spread,* but number one objective should be making sure that an infected person isn’t at the stadium.

*This assumes that the guidelines are followed. The umpires at San Francisco’s intrasquad game weren’t wearing masks. Immediately after making an incredible catch, Astros bullpen catcher Javier Bracamonte high-fived the right fielder.

Of course, teams are looking for supplemental testing. They want to keep their players and staff healthy and increasing testing is the most effective way to do that. Now, in the Astros’ case, it might not be for humane reasons as general manager James Click said on Monday that the team with the fewest cases is going to win. Click inadvertently made the best argument for canceling the season altogether. If a team comes out on top because all the others came down with an illness that can cause permanent lung and neurological damage if it doesn’t outright kill, maybe the season isn’t worth playing.

Regardless, teams want to look for additional testing, but that needs to be done responsibly. Giants president Farhan Zaidi explained that the ability to do that will vary from place to place.

We’re evaluating the possibility of doing more frequent tests based on what may be available in the area,” Zaidi said. “And different parts of the country obviously have different capacity constraints right now in terms of tests. Some areas, there’s no testing capacity. In others, there is testing capacity available. So obviously, we want to make sure that we’re doing that responsibly. But if it’s available, we certainly want to look into that.

It’s doubtful that the Giants could find surplus tests locally. California Governor re-ordered the shutdown of bars and indoor dining on Monday, and the state’s positivity rate is hovering around 9 percent. The Bay Area specifically is seeing delays in testing results. Who knows where the Diamondbacks found extra tests when just last week, the New York Times reported that Arizona has “drained even basic items for testing, like swabs.”

Several areas in the United States, including Arizona, are experiencing testing delays of over a week. Even if MLB isn’t taking tests from the public, they’re processing over 10,000 tests a week from all over the country. Canning the season and repurposing the Salt Lake City lab to focus on public testing won’t fix the national testing shortage, but it wouldn’t hurt. Instead of risking the lives of players and staff to get some games in, MLB could instead save some lives.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.