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Rapid Testing is 'Around the Corner' for the NHL

Even though it comes with the possibility of increased false-positive results, rapid testing will give the league another valuable tool in its efforts to manage a pandemic that has it on the brink.

Over the years, we’ve become accustomed to hearing that the NHL is a marathon and not a sprint. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to the 2020-21 campaign, it will be a monumental battle of attrition in which everyone will be happy if they can simply cross the finish line.

The NHL continues on, but things are not exactly ideal. And by not ideal we mean that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the NHL. As of Friday, there were five teams that have been shut down by COVID. The New Jersey Devils alone have 16 players on the league’s COVID protocol list. Already there is speculation that some teams won’t be able to play a full 56-game season and the league will have to determine playoff seedings by points percentage. And just so you know, by that format, the 5-0-2 Florida Panthers currently sit atop the NHL standings.

The situation prompted the NHL to increase its COVID protocols on Thursday, including a provision that does not allow players access to the arenas until one hour and 45 minutes prior to the game, with the exception of players who need treatment. This did not sit well with the Winnipeg Jets. “To shorten that time is pretty insane if you ask me,” said Jets star center Mark Scheifele. “You can’t expect guys to just show up and put on their gear and play.”

(Clearly, Scheifele and his mates have never played beer league hockey. I mean, who among us has not driven into the parking lot of the arena while the Zamboni is resurfacing the ice, hastily thrown on his stuff and had a great game? Personally, I’ve had some of my least-horrible performances under such circumstances.)

What the NHL did not announce is a regimen for rapid testing, but that is coming. In fact, according to one NHL source it’s “right around the corner.” And while further and stricter protocols will be welcomed, it’s clear that rapid testing has to be added to the NHL’s diagnostic toolbox in order for this to continue to work. Because even though PCR testing is much more accurate, it also takes too long to get results. Players are tested in the morning and sometimes they get the results before the game, sometimes after. That means that if they contracted the virus at some point between getting the previous day’s test results and the next night, they have no idea of knowing that. That’s probably what led to the Buffalo Sabres ending up on the inactive list after playing the Devils and the Colorado Avalanche landing on it after playing the Minnesota Wild.

Basically, the difference between the PCR test and rapid testing is this. The PCR test is a very, very precise test that casts a huge net. It will pick up people who have even shreds of the virus material, even if they are not symptomatic or contagious. The rapid test, on the other hand, focuses on people who are at risk of passing the virus on to other people. The problem with a rapid test is there is a greater risk of having a false-positive test. But if you’re holding someone out of the lineup because of a false-positive, at least you’re erring on the side of caution.

“It’s a value judgment,” said Canadian infectious disease specialist, Dr. Isaac Bogoch. “Are you prepared to put up with a certain rate of false-positives tests and have that disruption to your practices and games versus perhaps not being able to identify contagious individuals early enough and have an outbreak on your team? At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself whether it is OK (to have some false-positives). And in my value judgment, I think that is worth it.”

As Dr. Bogoch explained, both tests have strengths and weaknesses associated with them, but having access to both forms of testing is probably the best form of screening protocol. Results for rapid testing take about 15 minutes and it will undoubtedly add a significant cost to a league that is already enduring a massive revenue hit. But until there’s a vaccine that is widely available, this is how life in the NHL is going to look. “As far as testing, there’s no free lunch, no silver bullet,” Dr. Bogoch said. “You’re not going to test your way out of this pandemic.”

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