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NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that the league has no plans to suspend its season as COVID-19 surges through the league.
“No plans right now to pause the season,” Silver said in an interview on NBA Today on Tuesday afternoon. “We have of course looked at all the options, but frankly we are having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now.
“As we look through these cases literally ripping through the country, let alone the rest of the world, I think we’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to over the past several months, and that is this virus will not be eradicated, and we’re going to have to learn to live with it. I think that’s what we’re experiencing in the league right now.”
The NBA has had to postpone seven games over the past week — including five over the past three days — as the omicron variant of COVID-19 has swept through the league, just as it has throughout societies around the world.
Silver said that the omicron strain is “beyond dominant” within the league at the moment, something the NBA can track as it has the ability to sequence every positive test it receives from its players, coaches and staff members around the league.
“We’re up around probably 90% of the positive cases we’re seeing right now are omicron,” Silver said.
Silver’s position on not stopping play is in keeping with the memo the league sent to teams Sunday evening announcing new rules regarding replacement players. Teams now have much more flexibility to add them immediately upon losing players to the league’s health and safety protocols — and, once they have at least two players in the protocols, are required to begin signing them.
But one thing he said the league is not yet prepared to do is to openly change its stance on how long players have to sit out in the wake of a positive test. Currently, the NBA’s health and safety protocols say that a positive test requires either sitting out for 10 days or getting two negative PCR tests taken more than 24 hours apart.
Silver, however, told Andrews that the league has seen through the data it has collected that players who have received booster shots have both shown either no symptoms or very mild ones and have passed the virus through their systems faster — which could, at some point in the future, pave the way for the league to shorten the amount of time players have to miss.
“We always are measuring viral loads with our PCR test,” Silver said. “So that’s something, again, that it’s not just our doctors but the medical community is looking at. I think they’re already realizing that you can move away from the 10-day protocol when you have players who are vaccinated and boosted.
“It seems the virus runs through their systems faster. They become not just asymptomatic but, more importantly, they’re not shedding the virus anymore. That’s the real concern in terms of others. And so we are actively looking at shortening the number of days players are out before they can return to the floor.”
And while Silver said the NBA isn’t ready to change its stance on testing when it comes to asymptomatic players — as, for example, the NFL did over the weekend — he did say that the league’s data makes it clear that boosters work, and that he is hopeful that the league’s current percentage of players who have been both vaccinated and boosted, 65%, will continue to increase.
“We have a lot of data we look at. In terms of players and coaches that have gone through the three-shot protocol, meaning the two mRNA shots and then the booster, and then past two weeks, only a very small number of those people have been breakthrough cases where they’ve turned positive,” Silver said. “And they essentially have been asymptomatic or very mild symptoms. We’re also dealing with a large group that either have one J&J shot or haven’t been boosted yet.
“I would just say to our community, really to everyone, at least based on the data the NBA has, that the boosters are highly effective, and we are strongly encouraging everyone to get them. In fact, in our league right now, we’re around 97% vaccinated, but we’re up to about 65% of our players have been boosted and we’re in active discussions with the players’ association to get that number even higher. So we’re not, in terms of your question, in essence whether we can treat this as endemic, and people begin to move on and we only test those that are symptomatic and deal with those, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re paying a lot of attention to what other leagues are doing.”
But while Silver was quick to point out the efficacy of both the vaccine and booster shots, one thing he said hasn’t been discussed is another push to have a leaguewide vaccine mandate.
While San Francisco and New York have required players who play for teams in those markets to be vaccinated — a decision that is keeping Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving from playing in any home games this season — no other cities have followed suit, and the NBA has not circled back on its mandate proposal to the National Basketball Players Association from before the season began.
“No,” Silver said, when asked whether he had brought it back up again. “It’s something that we proposed. It’s something that the players’ association wouldn’t agree to. Having said that, we’re at roughly 97% of our players having been vaccinated. So from my standpoint, I’d rather focus on the 97% than the 3%. And, incidentally, many of the 3% now have gotten COVID, so they have developed antibodies.
“To me, the focus is on boosters for the 97% of players who have been vaccinated. As I said before, among those players who are eligible to get boosters because, as you know, there’s a waiting period after your second shot, but among those who are eligible to be boosted we are about 65%, and ideally I’d like to see that number get to 97% as well. That’s what we’re focused on right now with the PA.”
The NBPA issued a statement Tuesday evening about the effort to get booster shots to players.
“Today, we committed to facilitating the delivery of booster shots to all eligible players and the NBPA is strongly encouraging all of our players to receive a booster as soon as possible,” the union said.
In the meantime, however, teams are dealing with having to rush to sign replacement players, in many cases, just to fill out their rosters to be able to play in games. Silver admitted that isn’t an ideal situation to be in but said that ultimately there isn’t much of an alternative for a league that is going to continue playing games in the middle of the pandemic still raging throughout society.
“I think there’s a recognition that these are the cards that we’ve been dealt,” Silver said. “Of course there’s an amount of unfairness that comes with playing in certain cases with some teams where particular players are out because of COVID protocols, but the other advantage is we do have an 82-game season and we do have a long playoffs, and my sense is things will work out by the end of the season.”