NHL looking to increase rate of COVID-19 rapid testing

Chris Johnston and Elliotte Friedman look at the biggest stories from around the NHL, with new COVID protocols impacting players and the Canucks potentially looking at different options for Jake Virtanen.

As the NHL’s approach to staging this season amid a global pandemic continues to evolve, one step that is being explored is securing more docking stations for rapid tests, which would allow for them to become a more significant factor in the league’s testing process — especially on game days.

Currently, the NHL’s approach involves players and personnel taking one PCR test per day. PCR tests, the most widely available testing technique for COVID-19, are able to detect even very small amounts of viral material. This has made them the gold standard in COVID-19 testing because a positive PCR test almost certainly means a person is infected with the virus.

However, because the tests must be processed in a laboratory, the turnaround time on receiving a result is slower than other means of testing.

“It takes a while to get results and there are concerns about gaps because of it,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported during Saturday’s Headlines segment on Hockey Night in Canada. “Well, over the last 24-to-48 hours, the league and the players have been looking to secure more docking stations for rapid tests. Once that happens, I think you’re going to see rapid tests become more of a factor in the NHL’s testing process — especially on game days.”

Acquiring more docking stations could open up the possibility of adding a second PCR test to the NHL’s daily testing regimen.

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The NHL has already enacted some changes to its in-arena COVID-19 protocols, including changing when players are able to arrive to the arena, the removal of all glass behind team benches, creating more space in locker rooms and considering the deployment of portable air cleaners behind team benches to improve indoor air quality.

The effort by the NHL and its players to improve the handling of COVID-19 comes amid a trying stretch of the season for the league, during which multiple teams have been faced with outbreaks and games have been postponed.

Notably, the Buffalo Sabres revealed on Thursday that head coach Ralph Krueger had tested positive for COVID-19, while Jake McCabe, Taylor Hall, Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour and Tobias Rieder had previously been added to the league’s coronavirus protocol list. Earlier on Saturday, the Sabres placed forwards Dylan Cozens and Curtis Lazar on the protocol list, too. Buffalo had last played the previous Sunday against the New Jersey Devils, who have 17 players on the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol List.

A compounding complication for the NHL has been the divergent approaches of local governments in handling the virus. In Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, for example, mask-wearing is not required and businesses are mostly open. In North Carolina, home of the Carolina Hurricanes, masks are mandatory and a stay-at-home curfew is in place. These differing approaches create different levels of risk for community transmission that the league must manage.

“Depending on where you live or where you work in the NHL, there’s different rules on where you can go and what you can do,” Friedman said. “I think they’re going to ask the players to be very stringent and even if you are in a place where there’s looser rules, I think you’re going to be asked [to go from] home to hotel to rink and back as much as you possibly can.

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