Navigating the rapidly evolving world of coronavirus testing has been far from a simple task for professional sports leagues. They have had to weigh the efficacy and speed of various tests and companies, all while trying to ensure they would not be taking away resources from those who needed them more.
“It was incredibly complicated,” said Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration.
When leagues began exploring their options — Levinson said the tour consulted laboratory directors and its own medical advisers — saliva-based tests emerged as a popular choice. They could be done almost anywhere, with minimal assistance from a medical professional and without much personal protective equipment, and some studies found saliva was a reliable alternative to the more-common nasopharyngeal swabs.
Another benefit: Spitting in a tube is much less painful than a swab shoved deep into the nasal cavity.
“We call it the brain tickler,” said Jason Feldman, the chief executive of Vault Health. Feldman’s company is now a linchpin for several leagues’ coronavirus testing operations. Before the pandemic, it was part of a growing wave of telehealth companies, connecting patients with doctors via video calls, and facilitating shipments of treatments through the mail.
When the pandemic hit the U.S., Feldman, like many business owners, feared the potential economic effects on his company. But then he realized he was sitting on a wealth of resources that would be useful amid the crisis: He had a relationship with both the Rutgers lab, known as RUCDR Infinite Biologics, and Spectrum Solutions for other products, and a virtual consultation platform that would provide a safe way to talk to patients.
Vault Health devised an at-home saliva testing package, which is supervised via a Zoom video call and mailed overnight to the Rutgers lab, that could produce a result within 48 to 72 hours. It costs $150 out of pocket.
“When sports leagues started calling us,” Feldman said, “they said almost universally, ‘We have athletes who want to come back to practice and we need a plan that could safely bring them back.’”
While Feldman said sports leagues make up a small percentage of his company’s testing clientele, he said Vault had supplied tests to the PGA, L.P.G.A., M.L.S., and N.H.L., as well as a small portion of the N.B.A.’s testing operation. A M.L.S. spokesman said Vault had provided testing for 13 teams during training, while BioReference Laboratories would do so at the league’s restricted-site tournament that recently began outside Orlando, Fla.
An N.H.L. spokesman said the league wasn’t prepared to disclose its testing company, and the N.B.A. did not respond to a request seeking comment.
The PGA Tour, which had restarted competition in mid-June in Texas, was the first professional sports organization to hire Vault, Feldman said. Levinson, the tour executive, said the saliva test was basically used to approve travel: Golfers and caddies take the test before heading to an event, and then once again on the Saturday of a tournament to determine if they can board the tour’s charter plane on Monday to the next event.
But the tour needed a speedier solution for on-site testing to monitor individuals’ health during the events without clogging up local labs. For that, Levinson said, they enlisted Sanford Health, a South Dakota organization that was already a title sponsor of a PGA Tour Champions event.
Sanford Health converted leftover medical trucks into three mobile laboratories, Levinson said, which can return results from the nasopharyngeal swab test in less than two hours.
Dr. Andrew Brooks, Chief Operating Officer at RUCDR Infinite Biologics is processing Spectrum saliva collection devices which enable RUCDR to screen a much broader population without putting health care professionals at risk. Self-collection of saliva is vital in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as well as preserving personal protective equipment necessary for safe patient care.