FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - As Floridians wait days to get a coronavirus test - and even longer for results - one group doesn't seem to have any trouble: professional athletes.
Pro sports leagues are resuming operations and testing their athletes at least every other day, while other Floridians sometimes wait in line for hours only to be turned away until another day.
Florida is serving as the unofficial host for the restart of professional men's basketball, soccer and women's basketball, all descending upon Orlando. In addition, the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays returned to play this month.
The resumption of sports comes as COVID-19 cases continue to mount around the state. On Friday, Florida topped 400,000 COVID-19 cases after adding 100,000 reported infections in just nine days. The state has reported an average of 10,724 cases per day over the past seven days, the biggest surge anywhere in the nation.
A multibillion-dollar industry, professional sports require a massive undertaking to safely resume play - especially with social distancing nearly impossible during games. That means a significant amount of testing for the hundreds of players and thousands of staff members who help operate these leagues. And with games happening daily and players being tested every other day, the leagues need a quick turnaround on those tests.
Are the leagues receiving priority and draining testing resources around the state?
"With the massive testing challenges we are facing as a nation, it seems hard to justify committing any capacity for something optional like sports," Dr. Neel Gandhi, infectious disease expert and associate professor of epidemiology at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, told the Chicago Tribune.
Unsurprisingly, the leagues and the company that processes the tests say that isn't the case.
Bio Reference Laboratories, which has dozens of facilities in Florida, handles all of the testing for the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer. Executive chairman Jon Cohen said the company, which also will handle testing for the National Football League, can process 70,000 cases daily and return results in two to three days. Cohen said the athletes aren't getting special treatment.
"We continue to prioritize hospitals, health care workers, people admitted (to hospitals), frontline responders. They get priority," said Cohen, who added that nursing homes fall into that category as well.
"The amount of testing we do for the sports franchises for MLS and NBA is minimal compared to our 70,000 capacity."
The NBA and MLS both remain adamant that state resources are not being diverted with the frequent testing of athletes.
"Our testing program in Orlando will not result in testing capacity being diverted from the community," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. "By bringing new testing capacity to Central Florida, launching a mobile testing site opened to the public, and bringing in point of care testing to support not only the NBA but members of the community in the Orlando area, our program will actually be additive to public testing."
MLS says it is working with BioReference to provide COVID-19 antibody testing for the Orlando community. MLS adds that it's supporting the community collection location at the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets, which began on July 6.
The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.
Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
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