Infectious disease specialist: Too early for NHL to adopt NFL's testing approach

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti joined Hockey Night In Canada to discuss the Omicron variant and the various approaches being taken.

An infectious disease specialist told Ron MacLean on Hockey Night in Canada Saturday night that it's too early for the NHL to adopt the NFL's less-restrictive testing policy for COVID-19.

The NFL's approach, unveiled Saturday, is that if a player is double vaccinated and is asymptomatic, then that player doesn't need to be tested and can play. Currently in the NHL, the players are subject to frequent testing -- daily, in recent days, with the increase in positive results likely caused by the omicron variant -- whether they exhibit symptoms or not.

"I'm good with that at one point, but right now it's too early," Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., said during the second intermission of a game between the Senators and Flyers. "We're in the middle of an exponential spread here with omicron, so we need to keep an eye on the cases, especially in these congregate settings like a hockey team, so we can cut those chains of transmission.

"But at some point, these minor cases, especially when it becomes an endemic virus circulating like the flu does, we don't need to know about every cough or cold or runny nose. And in that situation, we wouldn't be testing people who are asymptomatic, so that is something that is coming in the future, it's just a bit too early right now."

Very early indications are that the omicron variant is milder than the more lethal delta variant. Chakrabarti said that would be good if it turns out to be true, for a number of reasons, but cautioned that it is too early to know for sure.

"There is evidence mounting from South Africa but also the U.K., Denmark now that it may be just that," he said. "But given the situation we're in, we may want to have more solid evidence before we go that extra mile. But yes, if this is something that is very transmissible but extremely mild, it will make all of us who are exposed immune and that would really, really put the brakes on the pandemic."

Chakrabarti added that if omicron is actually milder and more transmissible than the more deadly delta variant, it could crowd out delta and "be a blessing in disguise."

The NHL is amid an outbreak of COVID-19, even with most players fully vaccinated and some with boosters, with 66 players placed in COVID-19 protocol within the last 72 hours. The Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche and Nashville Predators have all had their games postponed through Dec. 27.

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