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BY HENRY ABBOTT
A week ago, the NBA led the nation in enacting the experts’ science-based recommendations to shut down. There’s some heroism there; maybe that’s how the league’s pandemic response will be remembered.
But public opinion swings easily between celebrated and vilified. The President of the United States, the Mayor of New York, and roughly all of Twitter have noted—with varying degrees of scorn—how very many NBA players (eight whole teams at last count) have been able to get tested for COVID-19, even as test scarcity is the nation’s gravest concern.
That’s how leadership goes in a crisis. You do your best. You make hard decisions. You move fast. You don’t always get everything right.
On Wednesday, commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association head Michele Roberts pushed back. Silver told Rachel Nichols on ESPN that 58 members of the Utah Jazz were tested under orders from public health officials. “They couldn't leave until health authorities had tested them. So that was our first case. And then what followed, when we then had additional positive tests the next day, [we followed] health officials' and our doctors' recommendations that we then looked at essentially that group of teams that were most proximate to the initial team that had tested positive and then the circle expanded from there. Again, I understand from a public health standpoint why some people have reacted the way they did, but I'd say from an NBA standpoint, we were following directives."
Michele Roberts told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne: "In many ways, I think it would have been irresponsible for the teams not to test their players and staffers because people in that arena have the right to know if they'd been exposed."
Silver added: “The NBA's move to halt its season led the way for other leagues and raised awareness of the threat of the virus,” said Silver. “My sense was that especially among young people, people were not taking these protocols very seriously until we did what we did.”
A few weeks ago, there was nothing remotely amoral about buying a thousand rolls of toilet paper. The price is posted right there on the shelf. Produce the money; it’s yours.
Try that move today! There might be a riot.
Such is life with finite resources.
Pretend you’re living on a ship in the middle of the Pacific. Until reaching a port, there will be no more cookies. If someone sneaks all ten cookies, it means, with mathematical certainty, that no one will get the eleventh cookie. “Supply and demand,” is often the answer to the question of how to solve these kinds of distribution things, but it won’t work without an 11th cookie.
Reportedly, the TP supply chain is strong, and help is on the way. But the fact is that today, most store shelves are bare. A few people have more than they need while others have none at all. Imagine life without toilet paper! This is wrong, and we all know it. Supply and demand is only the right system when there’s plenty of 2-ply.
But supply and demand is how many of those NBA players were able to get tests. In many cases, they came from private suppliers, somebody paid a lot for them. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have gone to other people. As if sick people, or hospitals that buy things from private suppliers all the time, wouldn’t have loved to have paid for them, which would have meant more of the public supply for the most needy.
As the world wakes up each morning to ever-growing pandemic fears, our most precious resource is and has been COVID-19 tests. It’s shocking to see who hasn’t been able to get one. Tessa Weinberg, Mark Dent, and Luke Ranker report in the Fort-Worth Star Telegram:
A 64-year-old man with a compromised immune system from HIV said he did not qualify for a test earlier this week at a Fort Worth hospital.
The man, who requested his name not be used out of concern for his work, came down with a high fever Tuesday after a domestic flight home. He had a dry cough and chest pains, so his doctor advised him to go to the emergency room.
Medical staff in “full body” gear, including oxygen masks, greeted him at the door, he said, and took him to a separate room that he described as “airtight.” But after a few tests determined he didn’t have the common flu, he said, he was released. He said hospital staff told him he wasn’t a high enough priority to warrant a COVID-19 test because he had not been to a high-risk area and his symptoms were not intense enough. The hospital had a limited number of test kits, he said.
“It’s truly a battle over the number of tests available. They don’t want to use them up,” he said.
Of course, many bad decisions led to this shortage and good effort has been put into blaming. Unload all of your ire at Donald Trump or the CDC or whoever is the right target. But in the meantime, we’re still on a boat, managing a precious, finite, life-saving resource.
What matters right now, is to deploy the tests we do have in the smartest possible way.
Here’s where the NBA is hurting the cause. They could make the case that it was lucky their asymptomatic young people were able to get tested. But instead, as of Wednesday, they’re making the case it was right.
A shortage of tests is hampering hospitals’ ability to provide services:
From the Texas Tribune:
The CDC has the job of prioritizing who gets tests. I don’t believe any NBA players would qualify. The guidelines are changing quickly, but as of Thursday morning the website suggests:
WIRED’s Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers have written a detailed account of the state of testing in the United States. It’s expert, current, and precise. It accounts for everything happening at Roche and other suppliers who are ramping up. And nevertheless, it concludes: “If you learn you’ve had contact with someone who has Covid-19, self-isolate for 14 days.”
Nichols asked Silver how the seven NBA players who have tested positive are doing. Great news: He said he has talked to them, and all but two are asymptomatic, while two have mild symptoms.
In other words, the advice from the CDC, from experts, from doctors, from WIRED—not to test, but merely to self isolate—would have sufficed.
Roberts tells Shelburne that NBA players were rightly tested because: "We were doing games where tens of thousands of people were coming into our arenas. We were exposing potentially a lot of people to being infected.”
The NBA was not just “potentially,” but was actually exposing a lot of people to being infected. For a while there, as we all learned what was happening, the NBA held games in defiance of recommendations from municipal officials in Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Ethan Strauss of The Athletic writes:
As experts on infectious disease made their warnings, the Warriors slapped up a sign ahead of Tuesday’s game that read, “attending tonight’s game could increase your risk of contracting coronavirus.” The Warriors played two games after that sign went up, an “at your own risk” liability protection that seems more applicable to the danger of a foul ball than of a contagious disease. A foul ball only hurts the fan who gets hit; it doesn’t multiply and smash into people who never showed up to the game. You can fault the Warriors, and I do. You can blame city officials, in San Francisco and elsewhere, for not being explicit about what they wanted from teams. But the ultimate authority for the NBA schedule falls on the league. Commissioner Adam Silver and the owners had the power to stop the games before a local, state, or national authority feels compelled to.
With the NBA’s authority in mind, why were two games played in a full Chase Center, behind a banner that effectively admitted to increased COVID-19 risk? Also: Once COVID-19 started spreading in major cities, was there any credible expert on infectious disease who thought well of playing games attended by 20,000 people? The NBA kept telling us that they were consulting with experts in the field. Which ones were fine with the packed-arena setting as health officials kept warning the public about “large gatherings”? Can we be frank about how the league knowingly risked peoples’ lives in order to cling to the last bit of cash?
Playing those games and jumping in line for tests … could all be seen as evidence of a league finding its way in tough times. It’s all understandable. Who wouldn’t want to get tests for people they care about? Who doesn’t want to take home extra toilet paper? Who wouldn’t love to jump in line? These sins could—and even maybe should—be lost in the wash. Nobody’s perfect and it’s best not to keep score in a crisis.
But if the NBA is asking us to tally things up, here’s the score: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Grizzlies investor Josh Kushner and his Oscar
About eight minutes into a Rose Garden press conference on Friday, Donald Trump said “I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether or not a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”
Then he added “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now.”
Then he introduced Dr. Deborah Birx, who held up a colored flow chart. “So I want to announce this new approach to testing which will start in this screening website up here, facilitated by Google … fill out a screening questionnaire … we want to bring it across the continent.”
Donald Trump speaks in ways that at times seem almost random. But this moment, the idea of a wonderful website, seemed more calculated. This looked like sales.
The next day, Michael D. Shear and Daisuke Wakabayashi reported in The New York Times that Google was not making a website, or had not been at the time of the White House announcement. What had really happened was that Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner had been talking with a Google subsidiary called Verily:
Verily was developing a website that could let people evaluate their symptoms and direct them to nearby “drive through” locations for testing. Desperate to tap the private sector to satisfy the public’s demands for a more robust response to the rapidly spreading virus, Mr. Kushner was quickly sold on the idea.
But on Friday, President Trump inflated the concept far beyond reality. At a news conference in the Rose Garden, he said that the company was helping to develop a website that would sharply expand testing for the virus, falsely claiming that “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now” and adding that “they’ve made tremendous progress.”
In truth, the project at Verily — which has a total of about 1,000 employees — is in its infancy. A pilot program is planned for the San Francisco area, but a website has yet to be unveiled. Testing locations have not been identified, and the coronavirus tests themselves are not yet widely available.
The Times added that the White House’s comments caught Google completely off guard. They quickly released their own statement saying that Verily, and not Google, was working on a project. But Verily’s project was only ever supposed to exist in California. This was not the national website Trump had trumpeted.
On Monday, Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo dug into Verily’s screening website and found that no matter what information he put in, he couldn’t get it to tell him to get tested. He said, “it is extremely simple and limited. The site seems like something anyone could whip up in Google Forms in a few minutes.”
Then came word that Google was then—likely in response to the president’s comments—beginning a new project with the federal government. Again from the Times:
Now, with Google executives eager to show they are working with the president, the company is racing to meet the promise even as they acknowledge that the debut of the website will be far more limited than Mr. Trump has suggested.
So, back in the White House, in the hours before Trump’s press conference, when:
Neither Google nor Verily was working on a national screening website and
It was time to make the chart Dr. Birx would hold up
What was the actual inspiration?
One possibility: An ambitious young health insurance company named Oscar, with close ties to both Jared Kushner and his brother Josh (an investor in the Memphis Grizzlies) did, in fact, launch a website like the one President Trump and Deborah Birx described. The very day Trump made his announcement in the Rose Garden—when neither Google nor Verily was about to launch a national website like the White House described—Oscar did launch just such a website.
It’s hard to know how much of Oscar Jared might own today, but Mother Jones’ David Corn reports: “A 2013 examination of Oscar conducted by the New York State Department of Financial Services produced a report that … put it, ‘Jared Kushner and Joshua Kushner are deemed the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system.’”) Douglas MacMillan, Heather Kelly, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Josh Dawsey report in the Washington Post:
Oscar also has a connection to Google. In 2018, Alphabet invested $375 million in Oscar, giving the Silicon Valley giant a roughly 10 percent stake in the start-up, and Salar Kamangar, a senior executive at Google, joined Oscar’s board. Verily invested in Oscar the previous year.
If Google wasn’t working on a website like the White House described, was Oscar’s approach the basis of Dr. Birx’s flowchart?
The steps described in the press release bear a marked similarity to the flowchart, both referring to the test subjects as “consumers” rather than “patients.”
Joshua Kushner (brother to Jared) is a major investor in Oscar Health, and the Times reported that Jared was in close communication with Joshua’s father-in-law in the day’s leading up to the announcement.
Still, Oscar Health denied any involvement with the announcement, or any connection between its new locator service and the broader White House effort. “We did not connect with the White House to provide input on their flow chart or tool idea before the press conference on Friday,” a representative told The Verge. “We take the pandemic seriously and want to do all we can to ensure our members and Americans, in general, are safe and healthy.”
It’s hard to follow all the threads and know what’s going on here.
There’s a well-reviewed, meticulously reported book called “American Oligarchs,” by Andrea Bernstein. It’s about two families: the Trumps and the Kushners. The idea is that these families have enriched themselves as oligarchs do, with a combination of proximity to power and rule-bending.
I tried using Oscar’s test locator tool. It’s a nicely designed website—you can see why it’s popular. Eventually you get a recommendation either to seek a test or not. I filled it out in a fictitious way, as if I had asthma, a fever, and had recently been to Iran. Eventually it told me to go to my local hospital, where there was no guarantee I could get tested. Then there is this:
“If you’re an Oscar member.” There’s a button right there to sign up. I clicked. The prices are similar to all health insurance—in the thousands, generally. But if you sign up, there is a doctor available remotely. Tempting, right? To have a push-button doctor in a pandemic?
And then I was reminded of one other moment from Trump’s Friday press conference. He opened in the gravest of tones, announcing a national emergency. He read off a series of actions he was taking, including “the ability to waive laws to enable telehealth …” and then his tone shifts. He likes this, a lot, so he looks up, and starts improvising: “... a very new and incredible thing that’s happened in the not-so-distant past. I tell you what they've done with intellihealth [sic] is incredible.”
In January, Tech Crunch reported that Oscar expects to have 400,000 members by the end of 2020, projected to bring in roughly $2 billion in annual revenue. Of course, everything has changed since January, but if we reach the end of 2020 and the real numbers are much higher, I have to think this well-connected company, with a current NBA investor as its co-founder, can expect accusations of profiteering in a pandemic.
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