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Showstopper: What a COVID-19 Case Means for the Milwaukee Bucks

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

First things first: we are glad to hear that Eric Bledsoe is feeling well, and we sincerely hope that he and his family are safe after he received a positive result for COVID-19, preventing his travel to Orlando to join the Milwaukee Bucks inside the NBA bubble.

It’s important not just to remember the human angle of the coronavirus pandemic, but to prioritize it. We might have come to know about Eric Bledsoe as a basketball player and a member of the Bucks, but we should care about more than just his contributions on the court. We know that he does.

With that being said, the coronavirus pandemic is a life-defining event that we all have the “pleasure” of living through. It has impacted everyone’s lives, and with Bledsoe’s positive test he’s the first Bucks player to be a confirmed COVID-19 case. But what does that actually mean? There’s an awful lot of misinformation out there, so I did some research to better understand how this might affect Bledsoe the person, Bledsoe the player, and the Bucks at large.

So, Eric Bledsoe is sick?

Well, not necessarily. A positive test is not the same as contracting the disease, depending on which type of test was administered. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, there are two kinds of COVID-19 tests in circulation: viral and antibody.

A viral test tells you if you have a current infection.

An antibody test might tell you if you had a past infection. An antibody test might not show if you have a current infection because it can take 1–3 weeks after infection for your body to make antibodies.

What his positive test means is that, at some point recently, Eric Bledsoe was at least exposed to the virus. It stands to reason that the league is administering viral tests, since those tests are used to detect active infections (which are liable to spread to others). But as Chris Haynes reported from Bledsoe himself, he wasn’t experiencing any issues, and we can extrapolate that he may have an asymptomatic infection.

So Bledsoe has the virus, but isn’t sick? Why is he separated from the team?

The nature of a virus is that it exists to replicate itself, and it does that by spreading from host to host and creating more copies. For whatever reason (which we don’t know yet), Bledsoe’s exposure to the virus did not result in the symptoms of COVID-19, which includes a fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and other problems.

But an absence of symptoms in one human does not equate to an absence of the virus that causes symptoms in other humans; and while their work has been scrutinized, the World Health Organization has confirmed (and is actively studying to understand further) that asymptomatic carriers are able to spread the illness. Furthermore, there is a distinct difference between someone who has coronavirus and “feels fine” and someone who has coronavirus and “feels fine...so far.” From the July 9th WHO brief:

Early data from China suggested that people without symptoms could infect others.(6) To better understand the role of transmission from infected people without symptoms, it is important to distinguish between transmission from people who are infected who never develop symptoms(75) (asymptomatic transmission) and transmission from people who are infected but have not developed symptoms yet (pre-symptomatic transmission). This distinction is important when developing public health strategies to control transmission.

As a result, the CDC recommends home isolation for at least 10 days following a positive test, and advises registering two consecutive negative results before lifting that self-quarantine.

So he might have it. But he might not! What if the test was wrong?

That is entirely possible! Because production of the supplies ramped up so quickly and distribution in the United States was anything but well-organized, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that Bledsoe registered a false positive. In fact, the US Food & Drug Administration issued a statement 10 days ago, regarding one manufacturer whose tests had false positive rates as high as 3%. That number is much higher than the acceptable range, but it’s important to note that any test has margin for error, with both false positives and false negatives. From Penn Medicine:

Since COVID-19 tests are new, knowing the accuracy is challenging. The accuracy and predictive values of SARS-CoV-2 testing have not been evaluated, and the accuracy of testing depends on which test is used, the type of specimen tested, how it was collected and the duration of illness.

No medical test is 100% accurate for many reasons, including error and timing of the test. Because it is possible to get a negative result even when you have coronavirus, it is important to be careful even when you receive a negative result.

What happens now? If he doesn’t develop symptoms, when can he join the team?

That’s the question on most Bucks’ fans minds, and it’s the question that’s nearly impossible to answer because we don’t know the timeline. What we do know is the NBA’s protocols, which were recently updated and spelled out in an ESPN report on July 15:

Because people who have recovered from COVID-19 can still have dead virus cells in their system be detected by tests, the league has now included the antibody test as part of its protocol for players and staff returning from the virus, according to the memo.

The memo laid out four steps each person has to clear to no longer be restricted from participating with their teams.

At least 14 days must have passed from the latter of their first positive test or the resolution of their symptoms.

They must pass two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart.

They must return a positive antibody test within the past 30 days.

They must pass a negative rapid coronavirus test before taking part in any close, physical contact with other people.

At some point, when Eric makes the trek to Florida, he’ll have to self-isolate for at least two days before he can rejoin the team. With all that in mind, we can try and piece a few things together, working backwards.

Again, this is purely speculation, since there are several other people (players or staff) that could have tested positive that led to the shutdown of the practice court. That said, if the positive test was indeed Bledsoe’s, then today marks 14 days since the estimated date of the test. He could arrive in Orlando over the weekend or early next week, and as long as his tests are clear he could be with the team ahead of their scrimmage with the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday. Eric Bledsoe joining the Bucks right before they play the Spurs? Where have I heard that before...

Here’s hoping things go smoothly for Eric and his family, and that he’s able to rejoin the team in Orlando. Until then, mask up and stay safe, everyone...