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Marlins outbreak casts harsh light on US coronavirus response

Marlins outbreak casts harsh light on US coronavirus response
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Major League Baseball's 2020 season has been upended just days after it began as nearly 20 members of the Miami Marlins have tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the suspension of the team’s play and casting a harsh spotlight on the U.S. struggle to contain the pandemic.

The league announced Tuesday that Miami will not play again until next Tuesday at the earliest, putting the team's season on pause after it played just three games. The decision created ripple effects across the league as schedules were quickly remade, and the Marlins' most recent opponent called off its games until Friday. But medical experts and league officials have remained cautiously optimistic the other games can go on for now.

“This could put [the season] in danger,” Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci: COVID-19 vaccine could lead to 'breakthrough' in HIV fight GOP lawmaker calls for Wuhan probe to 'prevent the next pandemic' Trump bemoans lack of vaccine credit amid mask news MORE, the government's top infectious diseases expert, said on “Good Morning America” of the Marlins' outbreak. “I don’t believe they need to stop. But we just need to follow this and see what happens with other teams on a day-by-day basis.”

President TrumpDonald TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers MORE last week embraced the return of live sports in the United States, calling it “a tremendous thing, psychologically, for our country.” And while many baseball fans celebrated the belated start of the season last Thursday, the rash of cases and cancellation of games have underscored the realities of attempting to bring back sports in the middle of a pandemic that is killing hundreds of Americans each day.

Multiple public health experts told The Hill that they wouldn’t go as far as suspending the entire season unless another team was found to have a major outbreak.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who hosted the Marlins for a series over the weekend, have not had any players test positive yet but are expected to pause their season until Friday to allow time to identify any potential cases.

But the experts argued that the Marlins will minimally need to shut down for an extended period until there are no new positive tests for a few days.

“You need to figure out how their outbreak occurred,” said Jill Roberts, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida. “Who's the first case and how did they get infected? So for MLB to move forward they really need to know where their plan failed.”

MLB teams are just as susceptible as any other business to a super-spreader scenario if a player or coach interacts with a community member who is infected and brings it back to the stadium, Roberts said.

Baseball was the first major American sport to attempt a comeback amid the pandemic without using a centralized location for its games, raising concerns about the prospect of teams traveling from hot spots. Miami-Dade County, for example, has been among the hardest-hit areas in the country.

Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League held games in a single location with minor bumps in the road, and the NBA is set to resume its season with players living and competing at Disney World. The NHL will play out the remainder of its season in select cities in Canada, which has far fewer cases than the U.S.

The president has at various points throughout the pandemic cited sports as a barometer for how the country was doing relative to the virus. He acknowledged in March and April that some games may go on without fans or with limited capacity, but said in May during an NBC golf broadcast that he would not consider things “back to normal” until there were crowds “practically standing on top of each other and they’re enjoying themselves, not where they’re worried.”

The country's struggles with bringing back sports without issue is a microcosm of how its response to the pandemic has fallen short of other nations'. The U.S. has by far the most reported cases of coronavirus at 4.3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and states like Florida continue to set daily records for infections and deaths.

Countries in Europe were able to successfully flatten the curve of infections and have seen the resumption of major soccer leagues, albeit without fans.

South Korea brought back baseball months ago, but the citizens there are accustomed to wearing masks, while the U.S. saw the use of face coverings politicized despite evidence it reduces the transmission of the virus.

“You look at countries like Germany, South Korea, Italy even that were able to bring back top soccer and baseball leagues without a bubble, and they were fine. And I think that’s clearly because they have done a better job controlling the virus,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College at Emory University.

“I don’t think there was any clearer indictment of the U.S. response than when the NHL decided to play the rest of its season in Canada,” Binney added.

The slew of positive tests and reshuffling of the schedule have dampened enthusiasm around MLB’s return and stoked anxiety among players and coaches who were already reluctant about playing in the middle of a pandemic. Though the games were later scrapped, a majority of Washington Nationals players voted Tuesday against traveling to Miami for a scheduled series this weekend.

“We will continue to bolster our protocols and make any necessary adjustments. The realities of the virus still loom large, and we must operate with that in mind every day,” the league said in a statement.

Public health experts expressed hope that league officials will take the Marlins' situation seriously and that the highly public nature of the outbreak may educate a public that has at times seemed to want to carry on as if there was no pandemic.

“I think if they go about it the right way and say 'we need to do an investigation, we need to take this seriously, we need to be transparent with the public and other teams,' it can actually have a positive effect and people in the community can say OK, this virus is still out there and it can affect anybody,” Roberts said.