NHL’s path to return still unclear as COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing

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Crews cover the ice at American Airlines Center in Dallas, home of the Dallas Stars hockey team, after the NHL season was put on hold due to coronavirus, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

As the NHL tries to hold out hope for a resumption of play on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, its chief medical officer provided a sobering reminder of where we are right now.

“It’s difficult to predict where the pandemic is going and what the timeline will be, but we do expect this is going to get worse before it gets better,” Dr. Winne Meuwisse said Wednesday.

That’s significant because it means there’s no end in sight to the first phase of the three-phase process the league needs to complete before this paused season can be resumed.

All that’s been accomplished with players in self-quarantine since March 12 is to establish that very few of them contracted the virus during their work-related travels around North America. As much as it’s good news that there have only been two positive tests among NHLers so far — “I don’t know if surprised is a better word or thankful is a better word,” said Meuwisse — it doesn’t necessarily mean that the path to playing games has gotten any clearer.

With the pandemic still only “just entering the rapid acceleration phase,” in the words of Meuwisse, the league decided Tuesday to push back the period of self-quarantine for players and team staff to April 4.

And they’re very likely to push it back even further before facilities can be reopened for players to start skating and working out in small groups.

“That’s a meaningless date really at this point in time,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on Wednesday’s conference call with a handful of reporters.

“As we get closer to this date, we’re going to have to make decisions as to what to do then. But we’re biting this off in chunks.”

They are at the mercy of higher authorities and the spread of the virus itself.

The guidance being given to Meuwisse is changing daily. He’s in constant communication with Dr. Bruce Farber — an infectious disease consultant who was retained by the NHL a couple weeks ago — and his medical counterparts in the NBA, NFL and MLB.

He’s also closely tracking the spread of COVID-19 and indicated that there would need to be evidence of a significant slowing before players would be granted permission to resume training together.

“While it’s rapidly accelerating, the risk in the general population’s probably increasing rather than decreasing, so until we see where the peak is going to be and how high that peak is going to be, it’s really difficult to give a definitive timeline,” he said.

“I mean, if we think about bringing people back, we’d want to have some confidence that the players and the staff themselves are healthy, some confidence the players were not infectious at that time and that bringing them back together — even in small groups — would not increase the risk of contracting or transmitting the coronavirus,” Meuwisse added.

It’s not something under any degree of consideration now.

The league included Dr. Farber, its infectious disease consultant, on Monday’s teleconference with the board of governors. He was able to provide a clear-eyed view of the challenges the NHL will face to complete this season with several jurisdictions around the continent having declared a state of emergency or enacted a lockdown for its citizens.

The coronavirus lives on surfaces and can be spread easily in the close confines of the team environment. It’s not a coincidence that both positive tests came from the Ottawa Senators following a trip through California, one of the early hotspots for the outbreak in the United States.

While the NHL already has stringent policies in place when it comes to disinfecting and cleaning shared dressing room areas — having experienced previous outbreaks of the mumps and H1N1 — Meuwisse said those standards will be reviewed because of COVID-19.

But there’s only so much that can be done.

“If you take that environment, you can see why disease transmission can occur very quickly within a team,” said Meuwisse.

The window for the NHL to stage the Stanley Cup playoffs now stretches into August, but it will need to see the spread of coronavirus curtailed well beforehand. The league hopes to eventually have players progress from self-quarantine to working out in small groups to a training camp-like setting before it can resume games.

In the meantime, all it can do is wait.

“Once we get to the tail end of this pandemic, where hopefully the curve has been flattened and the health care resources are not overloaded and the disease rates start to fall, at that point obviously the risk of getting people back together — not just our players, but our staff and everybody — is going to be a lot lower,” said Meuwisse.

“Depending on what the timeframe is, depending on the shape of that curve and depending on the remaining risk and transmission rates, that’s I think going to help guide us in terms of the timing.”

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