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Daily COVID-19 testing costly and impractical, team doctors warn

Health experts say daily testing for coronavirus may not prove timely enough to sufficiently mitigate infection threats inside the peloton.

With the resumption of the WorldTour season now just seven weeks away, teams and race organizers have been preparing and investigating ways to ensure health and safety through the resumed racing calendar.

Many have posited daily testing for COVID-19 as an obvious measure to help ensure safety in the peloton and among any fans and media allowed to attend the race. However, actually making that happen may not be so straightforward.

While testing to determine whether riders have carried or are carrying the infection in advance of competition is feasible, on-site testing prior to racing or through multi-day tours may not be.

“You [will] need mobile labs, in which riders and staff pass every day,” said Joost De Maeseneer, doctor at ProTour team Circus-Wanty Gobert. “In a grand tour that is quite a hassle, with constant moving between hotels, to the start and finish.”

Along with the practical and logistical considerations, Jens De Decker, doctor of Lotto-Soudal, pointed out that timeliness of results is essential, and it’s not something that can be guaranteed right now.

“In the most ideal of the worlds, we then have a test kit that delivers 100 percent reliable results after just 10 minutes,” De Decker told Het Laatste Nieuws. “Unfortunately, it is not available. In Belgium, it is always one day waiting. Which is still relatively fast. But there is also racing elsewhere in the world.”

Ensuring health and safety when racing resumes would not be as straightforward as simply quarantining any positive cases. The question then becomes how to handle a team if one of its riders or staffers becomes infected. With teams living and spending time together in team busses, hotel rooms, and team cars, social distancing would prove problematic and transmission risks high.

“What do you do with the entourage of a rider in question [i.e., that is possibly infectious],” asked De Decker. “Are you sending them home, too? The whole team by definition then? The current Belgian guidelines leave nothing to the imagination: all high-risk contacts of someone who tests positive must be identified and must be quarantined for 14 days.”

With teams across the peloton already stretched to the financial tipping point, the extra burden of additional tests, reported to cost €59 euros ($67 USD) each, could prove unsustainable.

Teams have already begun putting their own internal controls into place, with Lotto-Soudal one of many that are creating racing units of riders and staff that will stay together and rarely intermingle through the season. Such preventative measures may have to be the path forward rather than daily monitoring, warns De Maeseneer, who also advocated maintaining “moderate optimism”.

“Without wanting to minimize the virus and its serious, painful consequences, dare to believe that we have it under control,” he said.