No bubble trouble shows that NHL made a ‘brilliant choice,’ doctor says
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.
‘EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW’
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.’