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The NBA's Swine Flu Plan

10/20/2009

The NBA preseason has begun, big crowds are gathering in stadiums, and ... kids are coming home from school with fliers from the Centers for Disease Control that would make anyone think leaving your house with a runny nose is dangerous.

These are some "everyday preventative actions" the CDC recommends:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

  • If you are sick with flu-like illness, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.)

  • While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.

Meanwhile, the symptoms of swine flu are easy to confuse the kinds of viruses everybody gets this time of year. Sore throat, runny nose, fever ... you know the drill.

How worried should we all be? I have no idea. Swine flu sounds bad, but so did avian flu, remember?

How is the NBA -- a business built around the notion of strangers congregating by the thousands -- handling this, I wonder? If I had a multi-billion dollar enterprise that hinged paying large sums to sit shoulder to shoulder with people who likely don't follow CDC tissue guidelines ... The NBA has to be worried about this.

I talked to a New York City dad, for instance, who is hesitant to bring his kids into big crowds like at Madison Square Garden. I suspect he'll want to know on what basis he should believe that doing so is safe. I could see telling him that there's a low risk of swine flu in any interaction, and you can't live your life in your apartment. But ... if we're telling him we know it's safe ... Is there some system to keep people with fevers from serving the popcorn? That kind of stuff.

League Vice President of Basketball Communications Tim Frank says it's too soon to list specific steps that are in place now to address the concerns of that parent I mentioned. Every team, he says, has different approaches.

Frank is adamant, however, that the NBA is focused on H1N1. "We are planning," Frank says, "for all eventualities, from hand sanitizers through what happens if we have to cancel games. The planning book is something like 300 pages long. We're trying to have contingencies for everything that could happen now, but obviously a lot of these contingencies ... you hope you never have to make that decision, for example, canceling games.

"If the CDC asks us to do something, or local authorities, we're going to do it, obviously. If they call us up and say this is an outbreak, you can't play tonight, obviously we're going to have to go along with that."

Some steps that Frank says the League has already taken:

  • The League has put together a full pandemic plan after consulting with experts on infectious disease (we retained an expert in March) and we are following all recommendations of the CDC and WHO.

  • We are also following direction from local authorities in our team markets. We'll look to those cities for local guidance throughout the season.

  • We are currently communicating with our teams to review their pandemic plans as we approach the start of our season.

  • All league employees have been offered [regular] flu shots.

Frank recognizes this won't satisfy everyone. "There's going to be people that are paranoid about going to the mall, or crowds anywhere else," he says. "All we can do is be in constant communication with the people who are most knowledgeable on this. You take their advisement, you don't ignore it, you do what you're being asked to do, and I think you can make the environment as safe as it can be.

"And trust me, when you're on a plane or at a sporting event, it's something you're aware of. But we're trying to do everything we can to keep the environment clean and safe. ... We're talking to our teams now, finding out exactly what they're going to do. Some are doing training in this. For instance, making ushers aware of people who might be sick. We're still gathering what all the teams are going to do, but we have encouraged them to make plans and they are doing so."

Asked if the League would have any role, for instance, in how teams might handle sick players (flu has been an issue on some college sports teams this fall) Frank, a former Rockets employee, said he knew from experience that teams would take caution. "I know from my days working for a team, he says, "we would keep guys from coming to practice if they had the flu. The last thing you want them to do is spread it. And that's just for the basic flu. I mean, with this you'd obviously be more careful."

"It looks like it's going in a better direction for all of us," says Frank, "and hopefully we won't have to deal wiith any of these contingencies. But we have people here who are focused on this."