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NBA’s testing protocol rolls on smoothly amid Florida’s surge in coronavirus cases

People wait in their vehicles at a Florida testing site Tuesday. (Eve Edelheit/Bloomberg)

The second video diary from Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle’s time in the league’s Disney World bubble begins, after he unboxes his carefully packed breakfast, with a look through the peephole of his hotel room door.

“People in HAZMAT suits are here to test me,” Thybulle says, referring to the group dressed in long white protective coats, gloves and masks waiting for him in the hallway.

He then drags a chair to his front door, is asked to confirm his name and with the camera on his face for the next 20 seconds of the video, gets swabbed in his mouth and nostrils.

“Twelve hours for the turnaround,” a voice says. “Once we get good results, the world is yours.”

Such is the initial impression sports fans have gotten of the NBA’s testing protocol since players began arriving in the bubble last week. Thybulle is far from the only bubble dweller to share his experience; players and media members alike have documented a process in which tests for the novel coronavirus look easy and results come quick.

It’s a fluid, thorough operation that stands in stark contrast to what’s happening outside league confines, where cases in Florida are surging, reports of hours-long wait times and limited availability of rapid response tests are frequent, and other sports leagues have struggled with testing delays and the occasional inconclusive result.

In the NBA, what has been a relatively smooth process thus far was born of six weeks of conversation and planning between the league and New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories.

The testing plan, which is funded by the NBA, required players to take two tests in their first 36 hours after arriving before getting tested every other day with shallow nasal and saliva swabs throughout their stays. Others in the bubble, including media members, Disney staff and team staffers, are tested regularly as well.

What’s it like in the NBA’s Disney bubble? For me, hotel room workouts and lots of time to think.

On Monday, the NBA announced 19 players tested positive earlier this month before 22 teams traveled to the bubble, and two of the 322 players tested positive during their mandated quarantine. The players who tested positive never cleared quarantine and therefore did not interact with their teammates, team employers or other players.

BioReference Laboratories has around 100 staff members living and working in the NBA’s bubble, according to Jon Cohen, the company’s executive chairman. They control every aspect of testing, from taking swabs to analyzing samples in a lab about an hour outside of Orlando, all of which facilitates a fast turnaround.

Cohen said a 72-hour window is standard for the company to report results, but many in the bubble are finding out even faster.

“We set up a protocol with whoever the entity is, whether it’s a sports franchise or a hospital. We map out with them what their needs are, and then we determine can we meet those needs and what resources are necessary to put those in place,” Cohen said in a phone interview Thursday. “So in the case of the NBA … they worked out a process with us that they thought would be the safest regimen.”

The quick turnaround in the bubble has drawn backlash from some medical experts, who say testing 22 teams and their support staffs is unnecessarily straining the system. On Thursday, Florida reported 13,965 new cases, a record 156 deaths and a record increase in hospitalizations.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) reiterated the need for faster results in a news conference Monday.

“When people go through, a lot of times they’re not getting their results back for seven days,” he said.

BioReference Laboratories and the league say their testing plan is helping the community, not hurting it. In a statement, the NBA said it is launching a mobile testing site and planning to host a drive-through testing event open to the public this week that together will provide thousands of tests.

The NBA has arrived at Disney. Here’s what it looks like inside the Florida bubble.

Cohen said the amount of testing his company is doing for the NBA is “almost zero” compared with its capacity following significant growth in the past five months amid the pandemic. BioReference Laboratories can accommodate between 60,000 and 70,000 polymerase chain reaction tests — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s first coronavirus lab test developed early this year — and more than 250,000 antibody tests daily.

Cohen also views the NBA's ability to operate within the bubble as an economic positive.

“I understand the absolute optics or focus on sports figures, but to me, it’s not about the sports figures,” Cohen said. “It’s a much bigger issue relative to starting the American economy and getting these employers services. We did a huge amount of general public testing through multiple channels.”

As for what’s standing in the way of getting faster testing to the general public, Cohen said there isn’t just one roadblock. BioReference Laboratories has a certain amount of control when it comes to testing in the NBA. Not every lab does — and most aren’t designed to withstand the volume of tests coming in during the pandemic.

“So here’s what happens: We have supply chain issues all the time; we have machines that were never built to run 24/7 that have maybe a 70, 80 percent functionality right now; and then we have not complete control over the volume that comes in the door,” Cohen said. “Our hospital clients that were sending out 500 a day are sending out 1,500 a day. Urgent cares that sent 400 a day are sending 2,000 a day. … It’s a much more complex environment than people think.”