Inside the complex choreography of COVID-19 testing that keeps tournaments running

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The vials are ready to leave at 2:30 p.m. from Portland, Oregon, each with a unique name tag, the date of travel and the destination printed on them. It’s mid-September, five days before the Cambia Portland Classic LPGA tournament begins, and a highly choreographed maneuver, as complex as anything else in the tournament, is about to take place.

A driver from Next Flight Out, a door-to-door delivery service, is ready to pick up the samples at exactly that time — not before, and definitely not after. They are then transported — as fast as the driver can possibly and legally drive — to the Portland Airport.

There’s only a one-hour window to get to the airport and on the airplane. This time, the vials make the flight and in about an hour and 40 minutes, reach the San Francisco Airport, where another driver is waiting outside the gate, ready to scoop them up, rush them out of the airport and drive them to the destination — a Eurofins testing lab.

These vials, containing oral or nasal swab samples from players, are part of a big goal: to get LPGA athletes tested for COVID-19 in record time so they can be cleared for each tournament.

Without private companies and contractors such as Eurofins — which provide on- and off-site testing, virus detection, and protective equipment — the LPGA Tour might not be able to continue during the pandemic, and other sporting events might not take place. But each tournament and competition requires a highly complicated sequence of logistics.

“It’s this dance that’s going on — a lot of different pieces have to work exactly according to plan for things to go on without a glitch. One missing piece and we’d have the whole structure crumble,” said Dan Brouman, Eurofins’ business unit manager.

As with any high-speed chase, there’s a backup plan. If the samples don’t get to the airport on time and the next flight is hours away, the driver might instead transport the samples by car to the closest lab if it means saving a few hours. Usually, the tournament organizers are looking to shave off 8-10 hours from the usual 24-hour testing cycle, producing results as quickly as within 6 hours. Sometimes, as is the case with tournaments held in remote corners of a state, it makes more sense to drive to labs in bigger cities than to fly, Brouman said.

The athletes play a major part in this dance. LPGA players are given a band with a “pending results” sign on it, and they’re allowed to practice and walk around outside on their own but are not allowed to enter any enclosed space.

For the LPGA, these new procedures meant reassigning roles within the organization and getting additional help with organizing, transporting humans and vials, and ensuring testing happens on time. “That’s 100-200 more people involved in a chain reaction for each tournament,” Brouman said.

When the Invicta Fighting Championships, an American professional MMA promotion for female fighters, holds events, there are multiple layers of protection. The organizers first have every athlete tested via polymerase chain reaction testing, the most commonly used method. If the test comes back negative, the athletes move on to an antigen test (often called the rapid test), and if that is also negative, finally, a second PCR test. At Invicta 41 in Kansas City, Kansas, in July, one athlete had an antigen test come back positive after the initial PCR test was negative. The fight was canceled and the athlete was provided with a rental car to leave the premises immediately, said Shannon Knapp, the president of the organization.

While Invicta athletes wait on pending results, they can’t leave their hotel room, not even for a solo practice session. This year, for the first time in her fighting career, Kaitlin Young hung out in her hotel room the night before her fight, watching TV and ordering takeout. “I was paying a little attention to my weight, because you don’t want to go crazy, but other than that, I was chilling. It was so weird,” she said. Normally, she’d be doing weight training and running to keep herself from getting anxious the night before a big fight.

As sports organizations are actively thinking about bringing fans back into the stadiums and courts, they’re also thinking about the future of testing. Even though rapid antigen testing is becoming more readily available, organizations are still leaning on PCR testing because it’s the “golden standard of testing,” Stacey Collins, the head of LPGA Tour operations, said, based on the accuracy of the results. But these rules will be revisited if they can figure out a safe way to bring fans back, Collins added.

Last week, the Ladies European Tour played its first-ever tournaments in Saudi Arabia. The Aramco Saudi Ladies International hosted 111 golfers from around the world, and the testing was extensive: All players were able to fly through Heathrow International Airport, where a prearranged testing facility awaited them. After the tests were taken, the samples were transported to a laboratory in London, and during those 6-8 hours before results came in, players waited in a hotel. Once they were cleared to travel, the athletes flew to Saudi Arabia, where they continued with intense screening before the tournament. Players were all tested upon arrival by a private testing company set up by the organizers, with results delivered after 4-6 hours, Collins said.

“Who would have thought a box of vials filled with phlegm would be the most important component of this new regimen we’ve put in place to ensure the safety of everyone during a tournament,” Collins said. “One year ago this conversation would have sounded so bizarre to us, but here we are.”

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