No bub­ble trou­ble shows that NHL made a ‘bril­liant choice,’ doc­tor says

The Province - - FRONT PAGE - BEN KUZMA

Dr. Brian Con­way is con­cerned. The pres­i­dent and med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Van­cou­ver In­fec­tious Dis­eases Cen­tre knows his beloved Mon­treal Cana­di­ens prob­a­bly won’t up­set the favoured Pitts­burgh Pen­guins in the best-of­five qual­i­fy­ing se­ries matchup — no mat­ter how of­ten goal­tender Carey Price stands on his post-sea­son head.

What Con­way can take so­lace in is what’s hap­pen­ing off the NHL ice.

For a sec­ond straight week, the league an­nounced zero pos­i­tive tests for the novel coro­n­avirus from July 27 to Aug. 1. Of the 7,013 tests ad­min­is­tered to those in max­i­mum 52-mem­ber team bub­bles at the Ed­mon­ton and Toronto hubs, pre-set pro­to­cols, daily test­ing and pru­dent play­ers are pro­vid­ing the best pos­si­ble re­sult.

In a world­wide pan­demic, this is akin to Price blank­ing the Pen­guins on a nightly ba­sis to thwart Sid­ney Crosby. Pos­si­ble but not prob­a­ble, un­less there’s an in­cred­i­ble com­mit­ment and team ef­fort.

“I think they got very lucky, but they could do it,” Con­way said Tues­day of the Cana­di­ens’ 3-2 over­time win in Game 1. “I was liv­ing in Mon­treal in 1986 and Pa­trick Roy won them the Stan­ley Cup.”

That was a long time ago. What Con­way has now is ad­mi­ra­tion for ag­gres­sive COVID-19 test­ing be­cause ini­tial fears of iso­la­tion and con­tact trac­ing with a pos­i­tive test have van­ished.


Then there’s Ma­jor League Base­ball, which faces an op­er­a­tional cri­sis with a travel-laden, mul­ti­ple-ball­park, non-bub­ble ap­proach, and where more pos­i­tive tests are af­fect­ing the sched­ule and com­press­ing sea­son vi­a­bil­ity.

“The way to do it is the bub­ble sys­tem,” Con­way said. “You can’t have teams travel be­cause it pro­duces too many vari­ables and too many risks of ex­po­sure. It’s worse than be­ing in the com­mu­nity be­cause it can spread very ef­fi­ciently. To base­ball, I would say, ‘Stop or you’re go­ing to hurt your­selves or the pop­u­la­tion,’ and this is also a cau­tion­ary tale to the NFL.

“The NHL is go­ing to wind up as the ex­am­ple to fol­low be­cause the bub­ble works and we’re do­ing it in Canada. The hub cities were a bril­liant choice. Even if some­one went out­side the bub­ble and bent the rules, there isn’t a lot of com­mu­nity spread out there, be it in On­tario or Al­berta or any­where else.

“If there were cases, we have the most ef­fi­cient public health sys­tem go­ing in terms of find­ing the cases and lim­it­ing their im­pact. It’s the strength of the bub­ble in Canada. It re­ally looks as if the play­ers and any­one in the bub­ble have taken it very se­ri­ously, whether it’s them­selves or peo­ple around them making sure they do.

“I would com­mend the play­ers be­cause it has con­trib­uted to the suc­cess and our abil­ity to watch com­pet­i­tive hockey.”

In Phase 2 in the Re­turn To

Play pro­gram that started June 8 — small groups in vol­un­teer train­ing and skat­ing ses­sions at club fa­cil­i­ties — there were 43 pos­i­tive COVID19 cases, but they largely came from out­side quar­an­tine re­stric­tions. And once teams cleared all iso­la­tion edicts for train­ing camp in Phase 3 on July 13, only two pos­i­tive cases arose over the two-week pe­riod.

And now in Phase 4 and the post-sea­son tour­na­ment, the NHL can point to 45 pos­i­tive cases in nearly four months and that’s go­ing to re­ally res­onate with the med­i­cal com­mu­nity — es­pe­cially Con­way, who’s also a Van­cou­ver Canucks sea­son-ticket holder.

The risk is by hav­ing such good news that peo­ple might let down their guard.”

Dr. Brian Con­way

“The cases that came in were from pre-bub­ble times and I’m pleas­antly sur­prised,” he said. “Based on cases we had at the be­gin­ning and what we were told about the behaviour of adults in their 20s, their abil­ity to re­spect all these rules speaks well to avoid­ing in­fec­tions and de­liv­er­ing the prod­uct.”

The NHL re­al­ized that play­ers can’t be cooped up for weeks and months in a ho­tel room and only have lim­ited ar­eas in their com­pound to so­cial­ize at a dis­tance. In Toronto, the con­cept of us­ing BMO Field as an ad­ja­cent bub­ble showed great fore­sight.

Play­ers have safe food and bev­er­age op­tions near the lake and can toss a foot­ball and base­ball or shoot hoops. And in a re­stric­tive world, this is a home run.

“This is fan­tas­tic think­ing,” added Con­way. “And as we build the new nor­mal as a so­ci­ety, and the things we’re al­lowed to do now in Phase 3 or Phase 4, we have to for­get the old nor­mal. This is the ad­van­tage of build­ing the new nor­mal and that kind of think­ing also leads to hav­ing no cases.”

There’s still the po­ten­tial for pos­i­tive cases dur­ing the long so­journ to crown a Stan­ley Cup cham­pion in Oc­to­ber.

“The risk is by hav­ing such good news that peo­ple might let down their guard,” Con­way sug­gested. “That’s my main con­cern. Keep do­ing what you’re do­ing and what­ever is al­lowed un­der the rules be­cause it’s work­ing. It’s fan­tas­tic.”

Af­ter 14 days in hub bub­bles, play­ers will be al­lowed ex­cur­sions to golf cour­ses that will cater to them and not the gen­eral pop­u­lace. If ev­ery­body keeps their dis­tance, it shouldn’t be a prob­lem.

“That’s some­thing we’re al­lowed to do within the con­text of our cur­rent phases,” Con­way re­minded.

“As long as we re­spect all the rules as­so­ci­ated with this, we now have a base­line. There is very lit­tle or no COVID cir­cu­lat­ing within these bub­bles and with the amount of test­ing be­ing done, it (virus) would have been found.

“Any­one not re­spect­ing those rules is go­ing to end up in iso­la­tion and a 14-day quar­an­tine to make sure they don’t spread the in­fec­tion. You can play golf, but if you’re sit­ting there and sign­ing au­to­graphs, you are go­ing to be in quar­an­tine.”


The NHL has to guard against a sec­ond COVID-19 wave in the nat­u­ral fall flu cy­cle. The league has put mea­sures in place, but de­lay­ing camps and the start of the 2020-21 sea­son would be wise.

“Next sea­son could look a lit­tle like this sea­son,” Con­way pre­dicted.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to look at ways to ex­pand the bub­bles. In Que­bec (Mon­day), they an­nounced small the­atres would re­open with a ca­pac­ity of 250. Im­me­di­ately, there was a pe­ti­tion on­line to say this was too much, too soon. It col­lected thou­sands of sig­na­tures in the first hour and 10,000 who said, ‘Let’s not do this.’

“As we build on suc­cess, in Jan­uary we’ll be able to fig­ure out what we can do with a lim­ited num­ber of fans in at­ten­dance. A year from now, we can start to think about get­ting back to nor­mal. We can’t do it too fast.”

And judg­ing by what has been oc­cur­ring in B.C. with an up­swing in pos­i­tive test cases as the weather heats up, there is an­other cau­tion­ary tale. Con­way was in Whistler over the long week­end and saw sev­eral rea­sons for con­cern.

“I’m start­ing to see a bit of slip­page,” Con­way warned.

“There were a few restau­rants where the staff weren’t wear­ing masks, which I don’t think is great. And some of the line­ups were get­ting more com­pacted. But I did see more by­law of­fi­cers run­ning around and re­mind­ing peo­ple.”

Pro­vin­cial health of­fi­cer Dr. Bon­nie Henry has been the cham­pion of pa­tience and dili­gence to guide the pop­u­lace through the pan­demic. She has put her trust in peo­ple to man­age the mask is­sue and hasn’t made them manda­tory, es­pe­cially when en­ter­ing a busi­ness. It has be­come po­lar­iz­ing and has led to con­fronta­tions.

“It will be guided by the num­ber of cases we have and our abil­ity to limit their im­pact,” Con­way rea­soned. “If I were to con­struc­tively cri­tique her (Henry) right now, she should be telling peo­ple to have a mask on your per­son at all times, in case you need to use it. I haven’t heard her say that as clearly as I would like.”

And maybe that’s why a dis­turb­ing num­ber of older peo­ple, those more sus­cep­ti­ble to the virus, choose not to wear masks while in gro­cery stores or restau­rants.

“It con­cerns me,” he said. “Just out of re­spect for each other at this point. I would leave it up to the place of busi­ness to de­cide, but if they de­cided we need to wear a mask, then we need to.

“I don’t like get­ting po­lit­i­cal, but this is all about the U.S. and the views of their leader (Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump) that are so out there in terms of a re­al­ity that re­ally isn’t. It’s wrong.

“He tried to come out and say, yeah, wear a mask. But peo­ple know he’s not se­ri­ous about it. And they use the ex­cuse that there’s an­other way of do­ing this and that’s not wear­ing a mask and ‘leave me alone.’

“If ev­ery­one in lead­er­ship came out and said what Dr. Henry, (pro­vin­cial health min­is­ter) Adrian Dix and Justin Trudeau said — let’s take this real se­ri­ous — then I think we’d be bet­ter off.”


Mi­nus spec­ta­tors, Ari­zona and Nashville face off in Game 2 of the West­ern Con­fer­ence qual­i­fi­ca­tion round be­fore the Stan­ley Cup play­offs, Tues­day in Ed­mon­ton.


Van­cou­ver Canucks play­ers wait safely in­side the bub­ble of pro­tec­tive fenc­ing last week, as they make their way to prac­tice at Ed­mon­ton’s Rogers Place.


Benches are thor­oughly cleaned prior to the start of Game 2 of the NHL qual­i­fi­ca­tion round se­ries be­tween the Ari­zona Coy­otes and the Nashville Preda­tors at Rogers Place in Ed­mon­ton on Tues­day. The NHL is tak­ing no chances de­spite its play­ers be­ing in bub­bles.


For Dr. Brian Con­way, ‘you can’t have teams travel be­cause it pro­duces too many vari­ables.’

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