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Lakers join rest of pro sports impacted by spike in COVID-19 cases

Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, left, and Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan try to track down a loose ball.
The Lakers’ Talen Horton-Tucker, left, and the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan are two of the more than two dozen NBA players in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Lakers canceled a practice Tuesday.

That shouldn’t be the type of action that can send fans spiraling into doomsday scenarios, ones in which the league locks its doors, keeps its fans at home and, worst case, cancels games on one of its biggest days — Christmas.

But the Lakers didn’t cancel this practice because the team was tired or players wanted to keep their old legs rested. No, the Lakers canceled this practice because their roster had been infected.

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Talen Horton-Tucker, the team’s 21-year-old starting wing, entered the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, triggering the Lakers’ decision to stay off the court. For a team like the Lakers that’s fully vaccinated, it means either Horton-Tucker tested positive for COVID-19 or returned an inconclusive test.

On Tuesday night, the Lakers announced that Malik Monk and Dwight Howard are also in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

As the pandemic enters its latest stage with new fears and anxieties centered on a highly contagious variant, locker rooms around the NBA, NFL and NHL have seen waves of players test positive for the virus. The NFL had 65 players put on the reserve/COVID-19 list the last two days. The Rams have 13 players sidelined because of the virus; the Chargers have two.

An oral history of why the Lakers’ deal to land Chris Paul was denied by the NBA in December 2011, and a deal to send the All-Star point guard to the Clippers was approved.

Whether sports leagues try to weather the situation or retreat is still undecided, though for now the games, provided there are enough available players, go on.

This week, the NBA postponed a pair of Chicago Bulls games as the team dealt with its 10th player to land in the league’s protocols. One of Chicago’s replacement players — former Mater Dei star Stanley Johnson — quickly found himself sidelined too.

Brooklyn Nets star James Harden entered the protocols, leaving the team with just eight players (the league minimum) available against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday and seven players available to binge Netflix shows while in quarantine. Milwaukee would later add reigning NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo to the growing list of players in the league’s protocols — at least 25 as of Tuesday night.

The Rams, hours before taking on the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night, learned that star cornerback Jalen Ramsey and tight end Tyler Higbee would be unavailable. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. joined them Tuesday on the reserve/COVID-19 list with eight teammates. The Chargers played this past weekend without top wideout Keenan Allen and could play the Chiefs on Thursday night without rookie offensive tackle Rashawn Slater. Allen and Higbee are no longer sidelined because of the virus.

In the NHL, four teams have had games suspended because of outbreaks, including the Carolina Hurricanes, who had a game postponed Tuesday. That brings to 11, including opponents, the number of NHL teams impacted by postponed games.

The outbreak within sports leagues is especially interesting considering their high vaccination rates. The NBA, for example, has more than 95% of its players vaccinated.

The Rams announce Odell Beckham Jr. is among nine Rams placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday. Tyler Higbee is activated after false positive.

The COVID-19 spike in pro sports comes as coronavirus case rates in California have risen by almost 50% in the last 2½ weeks, and COVID-19 hospitalizations are up by nearly 15%. County health officials across the state say they suspect this might be the start of a winter jump in coronavirus cases.

It’s why leagues, including the NBA, have implemented aggressive policies to get players and employees booster shots. Players who do not get the booster shot could be subjected to more aggressive testing and stricter protocols.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks California as having a high level of COVID-19 transmission, the worst tier in the federal agency’s four-tier scale.

Studies find that the Omicron variant poses more than double the risk of coronavirus transmission compared with Delta, said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director.

“Omicron will almost certainly overtake Delta and cause new waves of infection globally,” he tweeted. While there has been some optimism that Omicron might cause less severe illness, “this will take time to figure out,” Frieden wrote.

Los Angeles’ teams, in particular the Rams, are in the midst of a surge. Beckham was one of nine players — including two practice squad players— who went on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday, joining four others who already were there.

The Chargers’ COVID-19 issues aren’t new. In November, the virus impacted the Chargers along their defensive front. Joey Bosa, Jerry Tillery, Christian Covington and Linval Joseph all ended up on the virus list. Bosa missed no games. Tillery and Covington each missed one game and Joseph two.

After two concussions last season and another scare this month, Chargers star Joey Bosa isn’t taking any chances when it comes to head injuries.

The NHL postponed Carolina’s game in Minnesota on Tuesday after four additional Hurricanes players entered the league’s COVID-19 protocol.

On Monday, three Calgary Flames games were postponed when six players and a staff member went into protocol over a 24-hour period. Last month, the Ottawa Senators had three games postponed and the New York Islanders had two postponed because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I think it’s definitely a great reality check to understand that as successful as we’ve been from the bubble restart in Orlando, to last year navigating a COVID season, and this year, it’s still ever-changing,” Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said last week before his team hosted the Lakers. “There’s no script, there’s no playbook for it. I think, as much as possible, we’re trying to be as proactive as possible and educate everyone on our team. Fortunately, we’ve established a good vaccination rate, booster rate, within our program with our players and our staff. We’re trying to do everything we can within our control, and then through the guidance of the league as these cases have popped up across the league, we’re just trying to do everything possible to stay healthy.

“That’s the biggest thing.”

Shortly after Jenkins answered the question about the COVID-19 spike around the league, his team announced that starting guard Dillon Brooks was entering the health and safety protocols.

NBA officials have been wrestling with the complicated nature of this latest round of positive tests. Many of the players currently in the protocols are asymptomatic. Most, if not all, of the rest have mild symptoms.

The league began this season without daily testing for players who were fully vaccinated, conceivably meaning that any number of positive, vaccinated players without symptoms were able to compete. Only after an effort to increase testing in response to the Thanksgiving holiday did vaccinated players begin getting tested regularly, leading, in part, to the spike in positive results.

NBA executives know, at least for now, that more tests are likely going to mean more positive results. Until the CDC changes its recommendations for asymptomatic and vaccinated people who test positive, teams are going to have to scramble to compete.

Competing now at this stage of the pandemic means doing whatever possible to stay healthy — even if it means fewer practices.

Staff writers Gary Klein, Jeff Miller and Rong-Gong Lin II, as well as the Associated Press, contributed to this report.


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