Utah Jazz have avoided omicron longer than any other NBA team, but they know it’s ‘an inevitability’

With the virus widespread in the league, Utah coach Quin Snyder calls it a “knock-on-wood situation.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A young fan cheers on the Utah Jazz against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021.

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While the rest of the NBA has played with patchwork rosters in recent days, the Utah Jazz have been the league’s lucky ones.

As of Wednesday night, Utah was the only team without a positive COVID test from a player or coach in the past month.

Sooner or later, though, that is likely to change.

When asked about his team’s health amid a spike in cases around the league, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he doesn’t feel a particular point of pride about the team’s spotless record. Instead, he said, it’s more reflective of good luck than good hygiene.

“I think we’ve been fortunate. We’ve tried to be smart about a lot of things, I think a lot of teams have done that. I think we’ve been fortunate, and I also think it’s sort of a knock-on-wood situation on some level,” Snyder said. “What we’re seeing is an inevitability of this situation.”

Snyder is right to consider it a certainty that one of his players will find his way into the NBA’s health and safety protocols at some point. The immune-escaping nature of the omicron variant means that, even though every Jazz player and coach has been vaccinated, early vaccine doses no longer protect them against infection as effectively as they did for previous variants.

Even in the best-case scenario that the Jazz were all vaccinated and boosted, it might be reasonable to expect 25% of the team’s players to get infected by omicron at some point, given how pervasive it has been in the NBA community. Fully 90% of the league’s cases recent cases were due to omicron, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in an ESPN interview last week.

To be sure, there are several variables we don’t know:

• We know that all Jazz players were vaccinated, according to Jazz general manager Justin Zanik before the season began. But did any Jazz players get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Johnson & Johnson after a period of months loses huge amounts of efficacy against delta, and while its efficacy against omicron infection isn’t tested, experts don’t expect it to be more than marginal.

• Silver indicated that 65% of the league’s eligible players have been boosted. We don’t know how many Jazz players have been boosted, though. Nor do we know how many are eligible — they had to finish their initial doses at least six months ago.

• We don’t know how many Jazz players have had previous infection. We know that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were infected at the very beginning of the pandemic, way back in March 2020. That they’ve been both infected and vaccinated means they have hybrid protection — the strongest form of anti-coronavirus defense you can get.

But we don’t know which other players have had COVID. On paper, it’s less than any other team in the league, but in practice, well, sicknesses have escaped detection before.

That’s especially true because the NBA has been less-stringent in its testing requirements for vaccinated players this season, until recently. Vaccinated players didn’t have to test for COVID regularly unless they displayed a coronavirus symptom — an estimated 40% of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic — or if they were in close contact with a positive case. Unvaccinated players had to test more frequently. With every player vaccinated, the Jazz were not required to test as often as a season ago.

Now that’s changed. As of Dec. 26, vaccinated players have to test on game days unless they have been boosted for 14 days. That, simply, gives the team more opportunities to test positive.

Given all of these confounding variables, it’s extremely unlikely that the Jazz will be able to escape a positive test with omicron.

So when will a Jazz positive test happen? Now that the team is on the road in heavier-omicron areas, their risk is higher than when they were at home in Utah, which had a relatively low percentage of the variant compared to the rest of the United States. Omicron is also exceptionally contagious because it binds well with upper-respiratory cells, meaning the average case is more likely to infect more people.

In an effort to reduce the odds of infection, the Jazz have reverted to practices used a season ago. Media access is limited to virtual interactions. Jazz broadcasters Craig Bolerjack, Thurl Bailey, Holly Rowe, David Locke, and Ron Boone are no longer traveling with the team, along with the rest of the production on-site staff that usually attend road games. Instead, the team uses a video feed in order to make TV and radio broadcasts happen, while the presenters themselves record from Vivint Arena.

But even with that handful of folks not traveling, there’s no shortage of potential infectors. Only Toronto has scaled back on fans in arenas; every other team still has hundreds of folks in close proximity of the players for the game’s duration. Opponents could do the job too — the Jazz played Minnesota’s D’Angelo Russell on Thursday, for example, one day before he tested positive.

“This is a hard time,” Snyder said during a video call Wednesday night from Portland. “It’s as difficult as it was last year, and maybe harder in a different way cause it’s a little bit unforeseen.”

As Snyder pointed out, as well as the Jazz have handled COVID protocols, the factors are against them. At some point soon, COVID absences are likely.

“Everything we’re doing right now, there’s a thin red line of COVID running through all of it,” Snyder said.

The good news is that the NBA has shortened those absences. Previously positive tests had to sit for 10 days after their test — that number that has been reduced to six days. Even if and when the Jazz do have players go into health and safety protocols, the impact might be mitigated when compared to what teams faced earlier in December.