‘The line should go away’: As restrictions ease, pro athletes are on deck for COVID-19 vaccination

After a year of external criticism and internal debate over draining resources from at-risk and essential members of society amid a global pandemic, North America’s sports industry may soon arrive at a point where the notion of “skipping the line” for COVID-19 vaccines is no longer a concern.

It’s even possible, public-health experts say, that they should assemble at the front.

With three vaccinations in distribution, a fourth awaiting approval and the USA now vaccinating residents at a rate of 3 million per day, states are increasingly loosening requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Monday, the state of Arizona announced any resident 16 or older will be eligible for vaccination at state-run sites beginning Wednesday in Yuma, Pima and Maricopa counties.

Fifteen of 30 Major League Baseball franchises are currently decamped throughout Maricopa County for spring training, and hundreds of ballplayers live year-round in the Phoenix area. In one week, they’ll break camp in Arizona and Florida and embark on a six-month, 162-game season that will take them across the country, coming into contact with hundreds of bus drivers, airline workers and hotel personnel and others.

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Meanwhile, the NBA and NHL’s indoor seasons – both significantly upended by COVID-19 cases in the absence of a bubble – are warily lurching toward their playoffs.

While the vast majority of these athletes are young and healthy, and the essentiality of their work – they’re just games, albeit ones that distract and entertain – is up for debate, there’s no denying the jobs can’t be performed while staying at home.

And the point on the axis where available vaccine and vaccinating those whose work requires frequent contact is drawing closer to professional athletes.

“We’re getting to where we’re past the point of discussing high risk groups and instead, let’s vaccinate everyone we can,” says Dr. Jill Roberts, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of South Florida. “And let’s hit the groups that are more likely to spread that than those most likely to die from it. I think we’ve done a pretty good job on at-risk groups.

“We should be at the point of removing those barriers. It doesn’t really come down to what the profession of the players is at all. It comes down to, ‘Will they be likely be spreaders?’

“I don’t think they should have to skip a line. I think the line should go away.”

If that’s the case, where, exactly, do the athletes line up?

The Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers did so, essentially, in their own locker room: Fourteen of 17 Hawks players and 36 basketball operations members overall were vaccinated after a March 19 game; all who were vaccinated met Georgia standards to qualify for the vaccine, which for players included a body mass index exceeding 25.

Monday, the Blazers announced 13 players received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, gaining access, they said in a statement to an "excess supply of vaccines through the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who began offering the vaccine to the general public in February as a way to help Oregon, and the Nation, move past the pandemic."

Multiple New Orleans Pelicans players were vaccinated March 14, days after some eligibility restrictions were loosened in Louisiana.

Older coaches and managers, such as the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich (who turned 72 in January) and Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker (71) have confirmed their vaccinations.

As for the 800 to 1,000 MLB players about to disperse coast to coast for a summerlong tour of America?

According to a baseball official with direct knowledge of MLB’s thinking, vaccinations will be state-based and handled on a team-by-team basis. The league will strongly urge, but not require, players and staff to get vaccinated once state regulations allow access.

The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the policies publicly.

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