Baseball Still Has Lots of Covid Cases. Now They’re Treated Like Any Other Injury

Back in 2020 — when the pandemic was new, vaccines were months away and little was understood about Covid-19 — one player testing positive for the coronavirus was enough for Major League Baseball to cancel a game. An outbreak of cases, as the Miami Marlins and St. The Louis Cardinals experienced that season, could sideline a team for a couple of weeks.

Two years later, MLB has a new approach: treating Covid like any other injury that might arise as a result of playing baseball, like a pulled hamstring or sore elbow.

The shift comes as baseball, much like the rest of the country, is trying to drop its last remaining restrictions in an effort to return to something resembling normal life,

One month into the season, around 50 players have been put on the Covid-related injured list, according to Stats Perform. More than two-thirds of teams have been affected. The Cincinnati Reds have put three players on the Covid-IL since Tuesday. The San Francisco Giants had four players out last week. At one point last month, the Oakland Athletics had seven players out for Covid reasons at the same time.

And that does not count the myriad coaches and support staff who have tested positive. The Cardinals, for instance, currently have three medical officials and a clubhouse attendant out with Covid. The Seattle Mariners recently had to bring up a few coaches from the minor leagues to fill in for a while.

Yet even as new, more transmissible Covid variants make their way around the league — and the nation — the baseball schedule has not been disrupted. Every game has been played as planned. It’s a signal not that Covid has disappeared, but that MLB believes it can coexist with the virus in a way it could not before.

“While we will continue to operate in a manner that attempts to prevent infection and transmission to the extent possible, we are confident that our protocols will allow our industry to move forward responsibly,” MLB said in a statement.

Additions to the Covid IL have been frequent, with at least one player going on it almost every day since the middle of April. Some players were out for as little as one day before returning to the active roster. Others missed weeks: Tampa Bay Rays catcher Francisco Mejía landed on the Covid IL on April 22 and did not return to the team until Thursday.

The response to those cases, however, has changed dramatically, receiving little attention other than from fans debating how missing players affect the chances chances on the field.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the scientific understanding of its transmission and prevention has evolved. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains what strategies have worked for stemming the spread of the virus and which are outdated in 2022. Illustration: Adele Morgan

Protocols this season have changed dramatically. Regular testing for Covid has been eliminated for asymptomatic people, with players only taking a test if they report feeling unwell. Most players in contact with someone who has tested positive are no longer required to sit out for their own status to be determined. They just have to mask up and take a few extra tests. Only unvaccinated people are forced to sit out, and even that is only if they haven’t had Covid in the past three months.

These updated protocols, MLB said, “were established in consultation with our experts to prioritize the health and safety of our players and staff above all and to prevent significant disruptions to our schedule.”

The difference in 2022 is that baseball, like America, is swimming in rapid tests that can deliver on the spot information about whether someone is infectious before they come into contact with others. So far, even without sidelining close contacts, most teams have been able to contain the number of players caught up in an outbreak.

An outbreak is no longer as fearsome as it once was, either, or demanding of extraordinary measures to prevent it. The uptake of vaccinations — and the accumulation of data suggesting they are effective at preventing moderate and severe illness for people with otherwise healthy immune systems — has been enough for the league and players’ union to agree that they can tolerate some risk of infections.

It’s a model other sports hope to follow. The NFL plans to drop all Covid protocols this season and operate as it did in 2019 and prior. If baseball is any lesson, players will test positive. And their teams will play on.

Write to Jared Diamond at jared.diamond@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

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