It is official: Major League Baseball is scheduled to come back from its coronavirus-imposed delay next month.
But the pandemic has not disappeared. As teams prepare to play in 10-team regional divisions intended to limit exposure to the coronavirus, they must reckon with an alarming trend. Swaths of the country are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 infections and dealing with a sharp climb in the use of hospital beds and ventilators.
In all 10 counties the Angels and Dodgers are expecting to play, the occurrence of coronavirus is on the rise.
The Times chose to illustrate the dangerous trend not by the number of positive cases, which would have been unreliable because of inconsistencies in testing and availability of results among the jurisdictions, but by tracking the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations since May 10.
Hospitalization data presents a sobering picture of those most seriously impacted by the infection. As rates climb, hospitals can become overwhelmed. And if all ventilators are in use, hospitals would have to ration who receives medical care.
“It just makes it risky to play these [MLB] games in places where the hospitalizations are going up,” said an epidemiologist who spoke on condition of anonymity because of restrictions from his employer. “The last thing you want is for some ballplayers to be in line to get a ventilator.”
Looking at the data
In Maricopa County, Ariz. where the Diamondbacks play, hospitalizations related to the coronavirus nearly tripled in the last six weeks. The rate of positive coronavirus test results increased during that span, according to NPR. Experts link the rise in positive tests to the May 15 expiration of the state’s stay-at-home order.
Texas has encountered a similar spike since reopening its economy last month. The spread of the virus is so rampant that Gov. Greg Abbott warned the increase in hospitalizations might force him to reverse orders that reopened the state economy. In Harris County, where the Houston Astros play, facilities reported 1,124 admits related to COVID-19 on Monday. There were 548 such cases reported on June 11 and 344 on May 10.
Tarrant County, home to the Texas Rangers, has experienced an uneven hospitalization rate during the last six weeks. Its hospitals hosted as few as 140 COVID-19 patients May 31 and as many as 283 on June 17. The county reported 268 hospitalized infections Sunday, up 37% since May 10.
As the number of positive COVID-19 cases climb in California counties that host MLB teams, some jurisdictions are seeing a downward trend in the number of related hospitalizations. San Francisco County had 66 coronavirus-positive patients in hospitals May 10 and 40 such cases Monday. San Diego County facilities reported 334 COVID-19 patients May 10 and 286 on Monday.
But that is not cause for celebration. The epidemiologist consulted by the Times related the decrease in hospitalizations to the increase in the number of positive cases among young people, who are generally less vulnerable to serious symptoms. A smaller percentage of people under age 65 require emergency services to overcome complications from COVID-19 compared to the highest-risk demographic, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified as anyone 65 years and older and anyone with serious underlying medical conditions.
The age shift was noted by University of Washington researchers last month. Their study found that half of new coronavirus infections in Washington were occurring in people under 40.
Alameda County, Calif., where the Oakland Athletics play, experienced a surge about three weeks ago. Hospitals accommodated 105 coronavirus cases May 31, up from 77 cases May 10. That number dropped to 78 on Monday.
A more extreme fluctuation occurred in Los Angeles County during that period. Before a recent spike, coronavirus-related hospitalizations dropped from 1,731 on May 10 to 1,285 on June 13. The number climbed again, to 1,556 hospital admits Monday.
There has been a gradual increase in the number of COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Orange County, where the Angels play. Facilities reported 230 positive patients May 10 and 376 on Monday.
In Denver County, Colo., where the Rockies play, the rate of new hospitalizations slowed dramatically during the same span. Denver Public Health reported a cumulative total of 968 COVID-19 admits May 10 and 1,148 on Monday.
Something similar happened in King County, Wash., home of the Seattle Mariners. Hospitals admitted 125 new cases related to COVID-19 between May 10 and Monday.