Given the league’s high vaccination rate, the NBA’s primary form of COVID-19 detection this season will center on designated team officials — largely members of the medical staff — using small, at-home, molecular-based testing devices that can return results in 20 minutes.
The NBA will still rely on lab-based testing in many instances, though not in the same capacity as last season, when hundreds of outside specialists — some of whom were embedded with teams — would collect and transport samples daily to laboratories around the country.
The league first began using these FDA-approved molecular diagnostic testing devices, which are about the size of a deck of cards, in a supplementary fashion to other COVID-19 tests in the Orlando bubble in 2020. Five NBA teams used the devices as part of a pilot program throughout the 2020-21 season.
But now, the devices — developed by a San Diego-based company Cue — will become the league standard in 2021-22, with each team having as many as 24 of them. Cue will also provide the devices to league referees, with the NBA’s referee operations group overseeing the testing process.
Cue CEO and co-founder Ayub Khattak said the devices have been used by sports leagues as well as more than 2,000 schools and other facilities in 16 states. A Mayo Clinic study reported the devices, which rely on a nasal swab for collection, produce results that are 97.8% accurate.
“Basically, our test is very specific,” Khattak told ESPN. “Of course, false positives are possible in any situation. But that’s another benefit of being able to get results more quickly. You’re not dwelling on a false positive for two days before you get your next result.”
NBA teams have been instructed to work with a local lab for any additional testing needs that may arise, such as confirming a positive test on one of the rapid-response devices.
According to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, those who are unvaccinated will be tested daily and potentially twice on certain days. Most team staff and referees are mandated to be vaccinated, and nearly 96% of players are vaccinated, a league spokesperson recently said.
It’s unclear what the testing frequency will be for vaccinated players and staff, but the NBA will work with teams to meet testing needs if they want to check every player and staff member every day.
Each team has a designated testing officer who is responsible for coordinating and overseeing the team’s testing. The officers will largely be from each team’s medical staff or athletic training staff. Test results go into a secure, cloud-based dashboard. Designated health care staff for each team will have access to the information, and the league’s player health group has access to leaguewide data.
Of the devices, an Eastern Conference general manager said, “I actually really like it. It’s very convenient.”
“I think it’ll be really big,” said one Western Conference general manager who was familiar with the devices. “It definitely cuts down on the need to have [other specialists] around.”
Last season, and in the Orlando bubble, the NBA largely relied on BioReference Laboratories specialists to conduct the bulk of its COVID-19 testing.
In 2020-21, BioReference had about 400 staff members around the country who were focused on the NBA, including about 10 staffers who worked on-site with each of the 30 teams, with one of them running point, often traveling to every home and road game.
Some of those BioReference staff members became so integrated with the teams that they were included in the annual team photographs.