Athletic trainers meet challenge of COVID-19

December 23rd, 2021
Brewers head trainer Scott Barringer. (Getty Images)

Rafael Freitas remembers March 12, 2020, when MLB suspended Spring Training in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then working as the Brewers’ assistant athletic trainer, Freitas and members of the team’s staff believed they knew what to expect after hearing the news during a meeting.

“A lot of us thought that, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be a two-week thing. This is going to be maybe a month. We’ll be back Opening Day, let’s say, halfway through April,’” Freitas recalled. “And here we are, two years later, still dealing with this. That’s the kind of stuff that you don’t ever expect to see.”

It also has turned the jobs of athletic trainers across baseball into expanded roles that even they couldn’t have expected when entering the career field, some of them decades ago.

Trainers have primary objectives of keeping players healthy and helping them to recover when they’re not. Now, training staffs have taken player safety to another level while navigating two baseball seasons played amid a global pandemic -- and it’s a main reason why these games have been completed.

Once MLB laid the groundwork for a 60-game 2020 regular season, the league sent out an operations manual to the 30 teams. Included in that document was a rule that clubs must appoint an infection control prevention coordinator who would be in charge of contact-tracing protocols, implementing social-distancing practices and more.

For many teams, it made sense to turn to a trainer to assume that newly created role.

“We were asked to tackle this because the club knew that we would be putting the players’ health in front, because they know that we do it,” said Freitas, who became the Pirates’ head athletic trainer in December 2020.

In addition to their typical responsibilities, trainers serving as an infection control prevention coordinator had various new tasks to handle while preparing for a pandemic-shortened season. They ran temperature screenings at the ballpark and made sure players filled out daily reports on their activities and health, sometimes multiple times for a person each day, depending on who was entering and exiting the facilities at given times.

This began during Summer Camp in July 2020, all while players were also trying to get into condition to play a season following a near-four-month layoff after Spring Training had been suspended.

“The preparation was a lot different,” Brewers head athletic trainer Scott Barringer said. “It was to do everything we could to create this safe environment and to have a successful season, and at the same time be able to answer questions for players, staffs, family members -- to help inform them, educate them and just kind of create that safe environment that baseball is for a lot of us when we’re all together.”

Nationals trainer Paul Lessard tends to umpire Joe West during the 2020 season. (Getty Images)

Trainers’ roles evolved more once the 2020 season arrived. The infection control prevention coordinators were in charge of coordinating COVID-19 testing, waiting for results, informing front-office staff of positive tests and filing reports, some of which could often not be sent in until late in the night, well after games had ended.

Early in the season, MLB had teams appoint a compliance officer to ensure the league’s health and safety protocols were being followed. For many teams, this role was also designated to an athletic trainer.

A long day had become longer. Much of that was out of head athletic trainers’ control; they had to wait for the drug testing agency to collect the tests, then later await the lab results.

“It’s not just like you could get there earlier in the day and take care of this stuff, you still had that same time window,” White Sox head athletic trainer James Kruk said. “So there was a learning curve of, ‘OK, well, when are we going to have the testers there? And when are we going to do this?’”

No trainer -- and nobody in the baseball world -- had a blueprint to work off of in 2020, because none had been part of a season played amid a pandemic. But in ’21, the head athletic trainers possessed the experience they had gained the previous year, as did the rest of baseball.

For each team, a front-office member took over the role of compliance officer in 2021. The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines also helped manage the new workflow, because teams could lighten protocols by reaching the 85% threshold. Fully vaccinated players and staff didn’t have to test as frequently.

“2021 was definitely a lot easier, where 2020, you just didn’t know what was coming at what time because we were all learning about the virus,” Kruk said.

Numerous trainers were quick to point out they couldn’t do it alone. Kruk shared his appreciation for the support of the White Sox “from ownership down.” Freitas cited Todd Tomczyk, the Pirates’ director of sports medicine, as somebody who has helped navigate COVID-19 protocols, as well as clubhouse assistants, travel coordinators and more. Barringer believed the “more efficient” processes helped get all the tasks completed.

For all of them, it was just another part of the job.

“In reality, it’s almost as if they’ve doubled their workload. And not a peep. Not a single word,” said Neil Romano, a senior adviser for the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society. “All you ever hear from them is they’ve got to keep the guys on the field, got to keep the game going. It’s very, very impressive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an impact on the country, now with the delta and omicron variants spreading. It’s quite possible that protocols and testing will still be needed in baseball in 2022.

While nobody can be sure what exactly to expect in the future, it’s a certainty that trainers will be there to help keep the players safe -- from COVID-19 or anything else -- and ensure the sport continues to move along safely and effectively.

“Especially with something like this, or an illness, at all times you want to make sure the health of that person is No. 1 in the priorities,” Kruk said. “So again, it’s just a team effort not only between the players’ input and what’s going on with them, but also our doctors and everyone to just give the best possible care that you can.”