Inside the COVID-19 outbreak sweeping through the Red Sox – The Boston Globe

How did a bubble of good fortune get not merely punctured but shattered? Why has the Red Sox outbreak which has necessitated a constant roster shuffle that left the team limping through the final weeks of a push toward the postseason proven so difficult to contain?

Interviews with more than a dozen players, coaches, and Red Sox and league officials have offered approximations of reasons: more lenient testing protocols introduced at a time when the pandemic was waning; a portion of the team that did not embrace vaccination (it has not reached the 85 percent vaccinated mark); and a determination by Major League Baseball to move forward with a full game schedule in the face of a growing list of infections.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that the virus didnt beset the Red Sox clubhouse through four-plus months of the season. Several opponents the Twins in April, the Phillies and Yankees in July, the Rangers in August experienced outbreaks while playing against the Red Sox.

Relief was the prevailing feeling on the team. Could their luck hold?

The answer came in early August: No.

During a short trip from Detroit to Toronto, all Red Sox personnel in the traveling party were required by the Canadian government to be tested for COVID-19.

Bench coach Will Venable, who had been vaccinated, tested positive with an asymptomatic breakthrough infection. While no one else tested positive, first base coach Tom Goodwin who is unvaccinated had to quarantine in Canada for 10 days.

In the wake of Venables positive test, and amid the heightened protocols in place in Canada, the Red Sox significantly ramped up their testing and spent several days masking not just in the clubhouse but also in the dugout. At least temporarily, those around the team witnessed more careful behavior by players and other team personnel.

My positive, I think, was sobering for the whole group, said Venable.

A warning had been sounded.

The Hernndez case

On Aug. 26, during a game against the Twins that concluded a six-game homestand, Hernndez experienced body aches but didnt consider them alarming.

After all, fatigue or dehydration seemed unsurprising given the humid nights in Boston, long games during the homestand, the late stage of the season, and a year in which Hernndezs everyday leadoff role had already yielded a career high in plate appearances.

With the Sox set to start a seven-game trip to Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Hernndez, who is vaccinated, boarded the team bus for the airport around midnight and sat among his teammates for the short flight to Cleveland.

Earlier in the season, Hernndez might not have left Fenway Park. From April through mid-June, when MLB protocols specified that unvaccinated players would be tested every other day and fully vaccinated players would test at least twice a week, the Red Sox medical team tested everyone in a traveling party before every flight.

The testing before each flight wasnt a league thing; that was the Red Sox going above and beyond, said Barnes, who is vaccinated and is also the Red Sox union representative.

That changed on June 16. At a time when infection rates throughout the US had crashed following the broad distribution of vaccines, a memo outlined the new testing protocols to which MLB and the Players Association had agreed, based on CDC guidance about fully vaccinated individuals.

Fully vaccinated individuals would no longer have to test unless they exhibited symptoms or had a known exposure to someone who tested positive. Masks would no longer be required indoors in the clubhouse, for instance for fully vaccinated players.

The memo noted in bold that it was necessary for all individuals to remain hyper vigilant of their symptom status. But Hernndez simply hadnt recognized his fatigue as a potential COVID symptom.

So with the Sox having stopped pre-flight testing for vaccinated players, Hernndez wasnt tested in Boston prior to the flight to Cleveland. When the plane landed around 3 a.m., members of the Sox wouldnt have imagined anything was wrong.

He was chirping and he was all fired up, said hitting coach Tim Hyers. He was doing his Kik stuff, bouncing off the walls while he was grabbing his luggage.

The next morning, however, Hernndez woke up with congestion and worsening body aches. His concern was immediate. He informed the team, and around 10 a.m., he took a rapid test that came back positive.

I guess you can call me Patient Zero on the team, Hernndez said. Whether I was the first one or not, I was the first one that actually tested positive.

I guess you can call me Patient Zero on the team. Whether I was the first one or not, I was the first one that actually tested positive.

Kik Hernndez

Charting the spread

The positive test set in motion a series of protocols for his teammates to follow, starting with contact tracing to determine who needed to be tested.

Not everyone on a team is immediately tested in case of a positive test. Every Tier 1 MLB employee a 100-person group made up of the players and coaching staff with the Red Sox and Triple A Worcester, as well as select front office members who interact regularly with clubhouse personnel is required to carry a Kinexon chip. The white rectangular sensor records close contact with others, meaning 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who tests positive.

Based on both Kinexon data and interviews (necessary because there are times when Tier 1 individuals might not be carrying their chip), MLB requires any unvaccinated close contacts to enter a seven-day quarantine. Vaccinated close contacts are subjected to heightened testing but are not immediately quarantined.

On the same day Hernndez was placed on the COVID IL, second baseman Christian Arroyo began a close-contact quarantine the protocol for unvaccinated Tier 1 individuals. But on that Friday and Saturday in Cleveland, there were no additional positive tests. The Sox held their breath, hoping that Hernndez might be the only person to test positive.

It proved a false hope. On Sunday morning, Arroyo tested positive. So did strength and conditioning coach Kiyoshi Momose a red flag, given that he works closely with virtually every player.

Im like, [expletive], now Ive definitely been exposed to it. Its only a matter of time before I test positive, Barnes said.

Now, the Sox had to confront the question of how many other players might become infected.

How long are the tentacles of this and where else is it going to extend? wondered assistant general manager Eddie Romero, who was with the team in Cleveland.

That final day in Cleveland became uncomfortable. With a flight to Tampa Bay looming, the entire traveling party not just individuals defined as close contacts was tested. But weather concerns delayed the start of the afternoon game by 3 hours and 10 minutes, bringing the players together in the clubhouse.

Not everybody has [a mask] on, just to be frank, said Barnes. Everybodys sitting around or hanging out with guys or talking, playing cards, doing whatever. That three-hour delay might have just been a breeding ground for [COVID].

The Sox blew an eighth-inning lead and lost, then bused to the airport for a flight to Florida.

That flight, said reliever Adam Ottavino, felt very different from the one to Cleveland three days earlier. A seating chart was employed. The typical card games (permissible for vaccinated players under the leagues protocols) and conversations didnt take place.

Most people just watched movies or went to sleep, said Ottavino. Nobody really wanted to socialize at that point because we pretty much gathered that the initial spread happened on that flight to Cleveland.

The crisis

On Monday, Aug. 30, prior to the start of a four-game series against the Rays, reliever Martn Prez tested positive. The virus had infiltrated the pitching staff and quickly spread. Barnes tested positive later that afternoon, resulting in his immediately being sent to an isolation room in Tropicana Field.

By that point, some members of the Red Sox became alarmed that the team was being asked to continue playing through what had clearly become a widening outbreak. They wondered why their game against the Yankees July 15 had been canceled but at a point where infections were spreading, there was no move to postpone contests against the Rays.

It could have been stopped if we could have possibly not played, like, one of the games in Cleveland and took a day and did the extra testing and kind of figured it out, said outfielder Hunter Renfroe.

The power to postpone is entirely in the hands of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. His decision about whether or not to play is guided by medical experts and reviews of the contact-tracing process, though the logistical complexity of rescheduling games is also a factor.

Major League Baseball has postponed nine games in 2021 because of COVID factors, but just two since April the aforementioned Sox-Yankees game following six positive tests for players coming back from the All-Star break, and a Nationals-Phillies game July 28 after 12 members of the Washington organization tested positive.

Sudden large numbers of positive tests contributed to the decision to postpone on those occasions. Steady spreads such as a stretch of nine player positives in 12 days experienced by the Brewers in July and August have not led to postponements.

Some Red Sox speculated about whether other factors were in play.

The first game couldnt get banged because it was an ESPN game everybody knows that, said Ottavino. They had to handle their partners.

The evidence is uncertain on Ottavinos point; the Red Sox-Yankees game that was postponed on July 15 was an ESPN game.

MLB decided to keep playing. The Red Sox recognized that theyd have to learn to play through.

I happen to think that playing these games, while frustrating because we dont have our full complement of starters, was the right decision by Major League Baseball, said Red Sox president Sam Kennedy. Would we have liked a two-week break? Thats what we would have needed. Would we have liked that? Of course.

But thats not the reality of what were dealing with. Were part of a larger ecosystem. We have to get these games in for the integrity of the schedule.

A game off, two days off, in hindsight may have helped identify some other cases. But its impossible to know. And to the extent that we have been harmed by playing games, thats on the Boston Red Sox not on [MLB], not on anyone else.

Would we have liked a two-week break? Thats what we would have needed. Would we have liked that? Of course. But thats not the reality of what were dealing with. Were part of a larger ecosystem.

Sam Kennedy

The players, meanwhile, were growing increasingly uncomfortable with their environment a sentiment only heightened when quality control coach Ramn Vzquez tested positive and reliever Josh Taylor was removed mid-game as a close contact. Goodwin was quarantined as an unvaccinated close contact for the second time in August.

We had a player that was taken out of our team and he didnt have COVID; it was just because he was deemed a close contact and unvaccinated, said Ottavino.

I got pretty annoyed with that fact not necessarily individually to the point of having a problem with anybody. I love all my teammates. But I just felt like thats a certain part of the protocol that, like, maybe guys didnt take seriously enough in their decision-making process [about whether to vaccinate].

I just didnt even want to be around anybody. I was going in the weight room by myself and watching the game. The first game, I didnt go out to the bullpen until the eighth inning. I was like, Why do I want to hang out with anybody?

A sense of crisis grew in the wake of a 6-1 loss that Monday, Aug. 30. While the MLB/MLBPA protocols required only unvaccinated players and vaccinated close contacts to test, the Sox decided to start testing everyone in their traveling party daily on Tuesday.

As this progressed, and especially through multiple flights, through a lengthy rain delay, through various situations where the group was together, it became much harder to distinguish between everybody in our traveling party as to who was a potential close contact and who wasnt, said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. It expanded to where it made sense to just start testing the whole travel party.

MLB worked with the team to arrange expanded and expedited testing during the Cleveland and Tampa Bay legs of the road trip. From Aug. 26 through Monday, the league had conducted 2,433 tests on behalf of the Red Sox an average of more than 135 per day.

The team also reverted to several practices employed during the 60-game season in 2020, before vaccinations were available.

Players were told to arrive later at ballparks to cut down on their time around each other. Masking increased. Meetings were moved from the clubhouse to the stands. Hitting groups in the batting cage were smaller. Players who were done playing for the day were told to leave the ballpark.

Still, such measures felt at times like patches in a dike that was steadily springing new leaks.

Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura tested positive before Tuesdays game, becoming the fourth Red Sox reliever to be sidelined in two days. Then Cora pulled Bogaerts off the field prior to the bottom of the second inning. The All-Star shortstop, who was asymptomatic, had tested positive.

The Sox looked bewildered. Ahead, 1-0, when Bogaerts walked off, they allowed seven runs in the next two innings in an eventual 8-5 loss their third straight defeat.

A turning point

The next day marked a reckoning. The Red Sox were 2-3 on the road trip, their lead over Oakland for the final wild-card spot down to just one game. Players recognized that they could either get swallowed by their COVID crisis or they could restore their focus to the field.

Yairo Muoz initially brought up to fill in for Hernndez and Arroyo in the middle infield tested positive prior to Wednesdays game, becoming the seventh player to test positive and the eighth to land on the COVID IL. It was clear, six days into the road trip, that the Red Sox would have to live with a roster being reshaped daily by a pandemic.

It felt like a gut punch after gut punch with all the guys, the COVID guys, coming down, said outfielder Alex Verdugo. We were uncertain, like, Are we going to reschedule these games or are we going to play through it? We realized, Hey, were playing through this, were playing every day.

Once we all realized that, it was a mentality, like a switch just kind of flipped.

With Chris Sale on the mound Sept. 1, the impossible-to-foresee middle-infield combination of Jonathan Araz and Jack Lpez (making his big league debut) helped turn three double plays, and the Red Sox scratched out a game-winning run in the ninth inning.

The next day, Sale became a vocal presence in the Red Sox clubhouse, assuring the team it would find a way to keep winning. The team did just that in the final game of the trip, beating the Rays, 4-0, to split the series and return home from a medically terrifying journey with a 4-3 record.

Anxiety about the outbreak prompted some members of the traveling party, including Cora, to stay in a hotel in Boston rather than return home to their families for the first few days after arriving from Florida.

Virtually everyone with the Sox continued to be tested daily, with some players tested multiple times per day. Efforts to keep players spread out and outdoors at the ballpark and away from the park remained in effect. Masks again became constant accessories.

Despite the heightened precautions, infections continued. Outfielder Jarren Duran tested positive on the first day of a six-game homestand, with pitcher Nick Pivetta, who was vaccinated early in the season, and utility player Danny Santana landing on the COVID IL two days later with symptoms.

Pivettas placement proved particularly jarring, as it came on the morning of his scheduled start. That same day, however, Hernndez after 10 days inside his hotel room was released from his quarantine in Cleveland.

I didnt even know where the elevator was, Hernndez said. There was a housekeeper there in the hallway. I think she got a little sketched out about how confused I looked, like, Whats this guy doing?

At the end of the homestand, Sale tested positive on an off day, prior to the teams flight to Chicago for a weekend series against the White Sox.

Identifying Sale as COVID-positive prior to the trip proved inadequate to stop further infections. On Sept. 11, Santana tested positive, as did reliever Phillips Valdez a day later.

Sixteen days removed from the start of Hernndezs quarantine, Valdez became the 12th Red Sox player known to have COVID-19. The majority of those cases, Bloom said, were vaccinated breakthroughs.

The fact that players continued to test positive more than two weeks after Hernndez created an element of mystery about the outbreak. MLB has not ruled out the possibility that the Red Sox are dealing with more than one strain of the virus that a second strain could have entered during the road trip.

It is impossible to say what role the teams vaccination rate low relative to other teams played in the spread of the virus. The Red Sox are one of six teams below MLBs targeted 85 percent vaccination threshold for Tier 1 employees. Their exact vaccination rate has not been made known, though a league source noted that no team is significantly below the 85 percent threshold.

Though the Sox practiced what Bloom described as good COVID hygiene in avoiding earlier infections, the teams vaccination rate increased the risk of transmission once the virus entered the clubhouse.

On the field, since the midpoint of the Tampa Bay series, familiarity with life in the eye of a storm has allowed the Red Sox to spend most of their mental energy on each nights game.

That didnt mean pristine play. The absence of players and resulting reassignment of roles had an effect, whether with a formless bullpen or misplays by those who were not occupying their typical spots on the field, such as the struggles by Verdugo in center field.

Players who hadnt been in the organization at the time Hernndez tested positive Brad Peacock, Taylor Motter, Jos Iglesias suddenly found their names on the lineup cards.

Through it all, the team treaded water, concluding Wednesdays game against the Mariners with a 10-9 record over the 20-day stretch that began with news of the positive test for Hernndez. The Red Sox have 14 games remaining, with a playoff berth still a possibility.

In the coming days, if the Sox avoid further infections, its possible that their COVID IL could be down to a handful of players or fewer. While players have experienced symptoms of varying intensity, none to this point have shown those that suggest longer-term issues.

Hernndez, Taylor, Bogaerts, Pivetta, Sawamura, and Prez have returned. Sale and Barnes were expected back Friday to face the Orioles at Fenway. Arroyo and Duran may be nearing returns.

The Red Sox contention for a postseason opportunity, in the eyes of many of their members, serves as a testament to their doggedness through dizzying circumstances.

Take a step back and realize that this team lost [13 players to the COVID IL] and was able to still maintain a playoff position, said Barnes. I think its a very defining moment and kind of just shows the kind of team that we have.

Julian McWilliams and Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this story.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.

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Inside the COVID-19 outbreak sweeping through the Red Sox - The Boston Globe

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