It is Thanksgiving and, while many are counting their blessings, others are mourning the loss of family time, routine, turkey, big family gatherings, and football. The Baltimore Ravens had to cancel their game today because of too many positive COVID-19 tests. My logical question as a surgeon was, “So I guess they reschedule for 14 days when they all come off quarantine and isolation?” My daughter, a college student, is not home this Thanksgiving because she is in isolation housing at school after a brief but direct exposure to a friend with an asymptomatic positive COVID-19 test. Per CDC guidelines, she can still convert to positive 14 days after exposure, so that is how long she is in solitary. She is mentally tough, but this is a long time for anyone to be alone, particularly a young person just starting adult life. Imagine my surprise when I heard the NFL guidelines only require five days of quarantine after a close exposure and daily testing.
This brings to light a disturbing double standard. My father has frequently bemoaned that I get paid less than a professional athlete, despite my years of training and expertise and the high stakes of the service I provide. Understanding the sports industry’s economics, I do not argue that a professional athlete brings in more revenue than a lowly neurosurgeon. However, I do not believe that viruses behave differently in a professional athlete’s body versus a student or a health care worker. CDC quarantine and isolation guidelines were developed based on the possibility of becoming contagious as late as 14 days after exposure. If I have contact with a person who is COVID-19 positive, I must quarantine for 14 days and long enough to have 2 negative tests, each test ranging from 8 hours to three days to get results, billed to my insurance. When I am in quarantine, my patients (who have also quarantined in preparation for surgery) will have their surgeries canceled. Clinic visits will also need to be canceled or done virtually from my home. However, the football player breathing next to the COVID-19 positive athlete can return to unmasked playing in five days. Is his immunity somehow privileged over mine?
The other double standard is the availability of rapid testing. While there are some new rapid and at-home tests coming online, they are not available to the general public or even essential workers. Yet, for college and professional athletes and political campaigns, frequent, even daily tests are the norm. Rapid, frequent, asymptomatic and, dare I say, free testing for at least health care workers, especially those in skilled nursing and long-term care facilities, and intensive care units, may have been able to prevent some of the 260,000 deaths to date. These have not been available.
In full disclosure, I have fed the professional sports machine by watching some of these empty stadium events. Perhaps that colors my protest as hypocritical. In the wake of my 18-year-old kid calling me at 2 a.m. in distress that there is a loud alarm noise coming from somewhere in the building for hours on end and she can’t take it anymore, I am not as sympathetic to the sporting cause and the bending of rules in the name of entertainment. This will soon be moot, as we are rolling out vaccines shortly, but it has informed me much about our society’s priorities. I hope we can learn from this, evolve and change like so many of our young people have in 2020.
Barbara Lazio is a neurosurgeon.
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