Sports Leagues Are Showing Us Just How Bad Omicron Could Get

Even some of the healthiest and most highly vaccinated communities in the country are being ravaged by the new variant.

Football helmets and coronavirus particles
Getty; The Atlantic

This article was updated at 11:39 p.m. ET on December 20, 2021.

Just a few minutes before tip-off on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the PA announcer for the Oklahoma City Thunder broke the news to the gathered fans: That night’s NBA game between the Thunder and the visiting Utah Jazz was canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances.” A Jazz player, it would soon come out, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. “You are all safe,” the announcer assured the apprehensive crowd. “Take your time leaving the arena tonight and do so in an orderly fashion.” Twenty minutes later, the NBA suspended its season, and a classic form of American escapism became an unwitting emissary of a reality Americans could no longer escape. By the weekend, the president had declared a national state of emergency.

Twenty-one months later, here we go again: Once more, COVID chaos has descended upon the world of sports. And once more, sports leagues are foreshadowing our pandemic future. In just the past two weeks, hundreds of professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and English Premier League have tested positive for the virus. Outbreaks have left some teams with so few healthy players that they’ve been unable to take the field (or court, or ice). Dozens of games have been postponed. Of the 10 Premier League matches scheduled for this past weekend, only four were played. And tonight, the NHL announced it would temporarily suspend its season from Wednesday until at least December 27.

At times the situation has verged on farce. Today the NFL’s Cleveland Browns suited up for their game against the Las Vegas Raiders without their starting quarterback, backup quarterback, or head coach. A cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals has been added to the league’s COVID list twice in the space of five weeks. With nearly half their roster subject to the NBA’s COVID protocols, the Brooklyn Nets found themselves in such dire straits that they recalled exiled all-star Kyrie Irving, who has been sitting the season out—and forgoing nearly half his $35 million salary—because he refuses to comply with New York City’s vaccine mandate. The team announced Irving’s return as a part-time player on Friday … only to lose him to COVID protocols the next day.

What makes these outbreaks all the more worrisome is that they’re tearing through some of the healthiest, most closely monitored, and most highly vaccinated communities in the country, if not the world. The NHL has a vaccination rate north of 99 percent; the NBA’s stands at 97 percent; and the NFL trails just behind, at a little less than 95 percent vaccinated. With all that immunity, seasonal patterns alone are unlikely to explain the recent outbreaks, Nita Bharti, an epidemiologist at Penn State University, told me: “It has to be some element of immune escape, which gives us Omicron.”

The nonstop news alerts about infected stars and delayed games can give the impression that sports are uniquely COVID-afflicted. And it’s true, Bharti told me, that athletes’ jobs—with all the travel and physical contact and packed arenas—may entail greater-than-usual exposure to the virus. But it’s also true, she said, that players are tested far more often than the average American. The NFL tests vaccinated players weekly and unvaccinated players daily. The NHL has required even more frequent tests for the vaccinated: at least one every 72 hours for much of the season, and one per day as of Saturday. Meanwhile, testing for people who aren’t professional athletes in the U.S. remains slow, expensive, and hard to access.

Because of their strict testing regimens, the leagues are detecting asymptomatic cases that would almost certainly go undiagnosed in the general population. So too are universities, many of which have similarly high vaccination rates and similarly frequent testing; last week, Cornell shut down its main campus after more than 900 students tested positive in the space of a week. Brian Wasik, a virologist there, told me that both campuses and sports leagues serve as an “early-warning system for trends that may hit at population levels.”

If so, the message is not good. America’s population at large is older, less healthy, and less vaccinated than professional athletes, and the virus is unlikely to spare us as it has them. “The fact that we’re still seeing transmission means that it’s moving even faster than we’re testing,” Samuel Scarpino, a network scientist at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, told me. “That should be a real warning to the broader population about how serious the situation is.”

Heading into the winter, the country was already primed for a major Delta-driven surge. Now, on top of that, we must reckon with Omicron, a variant that, early data suggest, is both more transmissible and more adept at penetrating the protection conferred by vaccines (though they still excel at staving off severe illness). Experts remain unsure of just how bad things might get, but COVID cases in the Northeast and the Midwest are already surging to record highs. At this rate, Wasik doesn’t think there will be many unvaccinated, uninfected people left by early 2022. The virus will peak simultaneously in multiple parts of the country, further straining a hospital system that, Scarpino said, is “essentially already at capacity.” He expects this wave to be by far the worst yet.

In 2020, the NBA did eventually manage to finish its season. The league embarked on a nearly $200 million public-health experiment, convening 22 teams at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, to play out the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs in strict isolation. The “bubble,” as it came to be known, was a roaring success: Not a single player tested positive for the virus.

For public-health experts, this was early proof that masking, distancing, and frequent testing really could thwart the virus. “We learned a lot about what types of public-health interventions you need to prevent outbreaks,” Brandon Ogbunu, an evolutionary and computational biologist at Yale who has studied COVID’s effects on sports, told me. How leagues handle the virus “ends up being a nice model for our public-health decision making.”

With Omicron surging around the world, sports are once more having to adapt. In Germany, many soccer matches are again being played in empty stadiums. The NBA has ramped up testing, and generally seems to be taking something of a wait-and-see approach. The NFL, meanwhile, has gone a different route, eliminating weekly testing for players who are vaccinated and asymptomatic. Whatever happens next, Ogbunu said, “the world will watch what sports leagues do.”