Epidemiologists who also happen to be sports fans have been closely watching the National Basketball Association bubble at the ESPN theme park in Orlando for various reasons. First of all, the pandemic restrictions needed to complete the season and advance to the playoffs have resulted in high-scoring games because players have zero distractions; there is no travel, no home court advantage, and no pressure from fans in the arena. Second, the experiment seems to be working since there have been zero coronavirus infections reported since games resumed in July. Finally, there’s also Matisse Thybulle of Philadelphia 76ers.
Thybulle is a rookie guard who specializes in defense. As can be expected from a technical player, he has increased his minutes on the court within the bubble, but what has really gotten the attention of epidemiologists is his video diary. Thybulle has become somewhat of a skilled first-person documentary filmmaker, and his detailed videos of the COVID-19 protocol imposed by the NBA with the advice of physicians and scientists have thus far been much better than waiting for research studies to be published from the bubble.
Diagnostic Procedures at the NBA Bubble
The NBA is not the only professional sports to impose special protocols specifically designed to resume season play. Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball have all done so, but only the NHL has been able to approach the success of the NBA. The MLS completed the 2020 tournament with some hiccups and with the Portland Timbers as champions, but it was a challenge. The MLB has had to suspend games and postpone series because of SARS-CoV-2 infections among players and staff members. The NFL is going without a preseason, and it remains to be seen how the league will handle things when the season resumes later this year.
The success of the NBA bubble in Orlando is something that scientists are beginning to understand thanks to Thybulle’s video diaries. The modified Disney wristbands that players wear provide a host of health data that is constantly monitored. Some of the early videos, which showed players arriving and having to undergo various COVID-19 tests, are being analyzed for certain movement and activity patterns.
Epidemiologists would love to see a controlled situation such as the NBA bubble implemented in certain communities. When players arrived in Orlando, they had to comply with strict quarantine periods in their hotel rooms, and moving from one place to another implied taking their temperature. If for any reason the temperature reading was high, they had to undergo swab testing. All health data is being digitally recorded and synced between the player’s wristbands and a mobile app.
How the NBA Contributes to Science
Many researchers learned about the collaboration between the NBA and the scientific community from the videos recorded, edited, and shared on social media by Thybulle. Advances in saliva testing kits have been possible through generous funding by the NBA; these are the kits that in the near future could let us know if we have achieved COVID-19 immunity.
With regard to saliva testing for SARS-CoV-2, NBA funding has also helped Yale University researchers develop a kit that could be sold for as low as $5. Unlike the antibody tests that were first developed with samples taken from NBA players, these tests actually try to detect genetic material from the virus. As can be expected, the NBA will not only share all testing data with the scientific research community but also organize it neatly for more efficient evaluation.
Finally, even behavioral researchers are appreciating the documentary work conducted by Thybulle in the NBA bubble. The young guard has thoughtfully included interviews and interactions with other players who are quite aware of their involvement in the experiment and their social standing. Although these are all professionals, they certainly miss spending time at home with their families, and many players admit that playing in the bubble is changing their behavior as well as their worldview.