On a scale of one to 10 — one being a nuisance, 10 being a full-blown disruption of his life — Adam Haseley sounded as though a four-day wait for COVID-19 test results that were lost in the mail last week registered about a three.
“To my knowledge, mine was one of the only, if not the only one that was in this situation,” the young center fielder said Tuesday, his first day in a Phillies training camp that began last Friday. “But with the Fourth of July weekend and all that stuff, I understood that was a little bit tough. I didn’t think it was a huge deal.”
OK, but what if it happens again? What if multiple players miss time despite neither testing positive nor coming in contact with anyone who did? What if it happens during a season that will last only nine weeks anyway?
What Major League Baseball is attempting — three weeks of training camp followed by a fan-free 60-game season in 67 days in 30 ballparks across the country, all amid a global pandemic that has infected more than 2.9 million people in the United States and killed more than 130,000 — is monumentally challenging. And the only way that it will work is with a system of rigorous testing that is both reliable and rapid enough to be trusted by the players who are risking their health.
Haseley's missing test is the first hiccup encountered by the Phillies. But it's far from the only glitch across MLB, which wants everyone, especially players and staff, to believe it's merely ironing out the kinks in an overloaded system.
With several players, most notably Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, reporting to camp and expressing doubts over how long they will stay, MLB announced last Friday that only 38 of 3,185 samples collected as part of MLB’s mandatory “intake screening” were positive for COVID-19. Considering the nationwide average rate of positive tests is roughly 9%, a 1.2% positive rate seemed to be encouraging.
But there were still more than 500 pending tests. From June 27 through July 3, MLB conducted 3,740 intake screenings, a three-tiered process that included temperature checks, saliva or oral/nasal swabs, and a blood sample for serology/antibody testing. In a statement Monday, MLB claimed that 95% of those tests had been conducted, analyzed and shared with the 30 teams.
But the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros — last year’s World Series teams — canceled their scheduled workouts Monday because they had not yet received their allotment of intake results. The St. Louis Cardinals did the same. The San Francisco Giants suspended their training camp Tuesday pending results of COVID-19 testing that was conducted last weekend.
The Phillies have not yet experienced such problems. All it would take, though, to prompt them to call off a scheduled workout is a 24-hour delay in the testing process, according to general manager Matt Klentak, who said such a cancellation would be "a relatively easy decision for us."
“It’s happened already throughout the league, and we have to be prepared for that,” Klentak said Tuesday. “We would not hesitate to shut down camp for a day if we had to do that. It would just be too risky.”
Nobody needs to tell the players, many of whom arrived with concerns. It isn’t only Trout, the best player in the sport, whose wife is due to give birth in August. Phillies reliever Francisco Liriano, a 14-year veteran who has made $62 million in his career, is evaluating if he wants to play. And for every Trout, there are dozens of Lirianos.
Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler, whose pregnant wife’s due date is in the final week of July, said this over the weekend: “I’m happy with what I see so far, but this could change, especially once our baby’s born.”
One surefire way to change players’ minds would be issues with testing that diminish their faith in the system.
“It’s everything,” Haseley said of that trust. “I’ve got to look out for my teammates’ families. I’ve got to look out for my family.”
Haseley got into town last Tuesday after spending baseball’s hiatus at home in the Orlando area. He went for his intake screening last Wednesday morning. For the next two days, his results weren’t available, but then the turnaround time, especially for the initial testing, could be 48 hours.
“Saturday afternoon is when I was told that there was some sort of error with my specific test,” Haseley said.
Haseley’s samples, like each of the others given by Phillies players and staff, were sent to the Utah laboratory that MLB is using to conduct its COVID-19 screenings, according to Klentak. But while the rest of the results came back, Haseley’s didn’t. Klentak termed it a “lab error,” a polite way of saying the test was lost.
Mistakes happen. And given the enormity of the undertaking — testing upwards of 1,800 players and 2,000 staff members every other day for the next 12 weeks — there figure to be many more.
From now on, testing will be staggered, according to Klentak, so not every team is conducting tests on the same day. Maybe that will ease the burden on the lab. Maybe it will streamline the process.
Or maybe, in the end, it will prove to be too much for MLB to handle.
“It’s going to be critical that the testing is done reliably and done quickly,” Klentak said. “The league folks, the Players Association folks and the folks at the lab are doing the best they can, and we absolutely understand that this is a huge undertaking. We understand that.
“Nevertheless, it’s frustrating for a player like Adam Haseley or to the Phillies when something like that happens. Our hope throughout the league is that as we work through these instances early, that we will be able to smooth them out for later in camp and later in the season.”