As the Ravens’ head team physician since the franchise’s inception in 1996 — and dating to its time in Cleveland — Dr. Andrew Tucker has witnessed many injuries and illnesses.
He’s studied harrowing information regarding concussions in the last decade, witnessed miraculous comebacks from injuries by Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis and even helped treat Troy Smith after the quarterback contracted a rare throat infection in 2008.
But the coronavirus pandemic, as has been the case with even the nation’s top public health experts, has perplexed Tucker.
“I thought I’d seen it all, but I hadn’t seen it all this year,” Tucker said Wednesday on a Zoom call, just days before the Ravens will hold their first padded practice of training camp.
With the Big Ten and the Pac-12 on Tuesday postponing their fall sports season, citing medical concerns, increased attention has been placed on myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19.
Tucker said the condition, characterized as an inflammation of a heart muscle, is a “concern” but was not unknown to health experts before the coronavirus outbreak. He said the possibility of a player contracting myocarditis is “low, but how low is a little bit premature to say because we just don’t have the data.”
Various cardiac tests are in place to monitor the heart and overall health of a player after a positive COVID-19 test, Tucker said, including an echocardiogram and troponin test, which measures the level of proteins in the blood that can detect heart injury. Tucker said it’s still unclear whether asymptomatic individuals are at-risk for the condition and whether heart issues could develop after an individual is tested at the conclusion of their quarantine.
The NBA, which restarted its season late July at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, announced zero positive tests Wednesday in its screening of COVID-19 for the fourth straight week. It further proved the success of bubble atmospheres in insulating athletes from the dangers of the coronavirus.
While the NFL won’t use a bubble, Tucker expressed optimism in the season running without large-scale disruptions, saying, “Everyone has their part to play.”
“We’re really only as strong as our weakest link in terms of these protocols,” Tucker said, pointing to outbreaks in Major League Baseball to show how an infection could derail a team’s season.
Tucker said it’s been “baffling” to see how contagious the coronavirus is and how it can affect two people differently. But he lauded the measures taken by the league and each team to prevent the spread of the virus and trace individuals in the case of a positive test.
He noted the remodeling of the team’s cafeteria — it’s been made “two to three times as big” — as well as the tracking devices that monitor close encounters and the limits on traveling while the team is on the road.
But Tucker said each player’s responsibility ultimately comes down to three things: handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing.
“It’s not sexy … but it is fundamental to how we prevent infections,” Tucker said.
The league last week made adjustments to its testing protocols to allow a quicker return for players who return a “presumptive positive” or “inconclusive” result, followed by two negative results the following day. The change came about after Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford returned a false positive test and was placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list. Without the change, he would have been quarantined and away from the team for at least five days.
And that’s the most troubling aspect of the pandemic and the 2020 season: the unknown nature of the virus and how quickly protocols can change. While Tucker was speaking to reporters, the NFL Players Association announced that it reached an agreement with the NFL to continue daily testing through Sept. 5, which runs just days before the Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans to open the season.
Under previously agreed-upon rules, testing was supposed to be conducted every other day if the league’s positivity rate was under 5% after two weeks of training camp.
Tucker chuckled when a reporter informed him of the latest developments mid-conference call.
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“I guess we’re stuck getting a lot of swabs, which is worth it,” Tucker responded.