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With COVID, Lightning learned to ‘expect the unexpected’

Players frustrated by being sidelined despite showing no symptoms became used to following their daily test results like never before.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said that while he was in COVID protocol he was testing every day "just to get that (cycle threshold value) number up and see where it’s at.” Because PCR tests still show traces of the virus weeks after infection, high CT values allowed players to return to the ice more quickly.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said that while he was in COVID protocol he was testing every day "just to get that (cycle threshold value) number up and see where it’s at.” Because PCR tests still show traces of the virus weeks after infection, high CT values allowed players to return to the ice more quickly. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 8
Updated Jan. 9

TAMPA — For the first 11 weeks of the season, the Lightning dodged COVID-19.

While other organizations around the league were forced to postpone games and teams shut down operations amid outbreaks, the Lightning were unaffected. They shared the ice with teams that days later lost players to positive tests.

But when the coronavirus did hit the Lightning, it spread quickly. In the past three weeks, nine players and three coaches went into the league’s protocol, creating day-to-day — and sometimes hour-to-hour — uncertainty about who would be available to take the ice.

“I guess we expect the unexpected,” forward Alex Killorn said. “Every day we come in knowing that someone might get pulled, and mentally, you just kind of have to wrap your head around it knowing that the guys that are walking in in the morning may not be the guys that are going to play.

“We have to get these games in; we have to play them. So it’s just kind of finding a way to win through these tough times.”

Lightning assistant coaches found out 2½ hours before the start of the Dec. 21 game in Las Vegas that coach Jon Cooper had tested positive. The Lightning returned from the holiday break Dec. 26 to a practice missing four players, including both goaltenders.

Forward Anthony Cirelli was pulled out of a team meeting because he tested positive, and forward Ross Colton was told he had to enter the protocol after coming off the ice for the morning skate before Tuesday’s game in Columbus.

Even when players were able to return, it wasn’t seamless. Rookie forward Taylor Raddysh was cleared Monday. He made it for that day’s practice, but his equipment bag didn’t.

“There’s just been a lot of disruption,” Cooper said. “We’ve had a multitude of players come in. Different guys are playing games, guys are getting their first games in. You don’t know who’s playing hours before the game.”

The Lightning’s revolving roster door coincided with their most uneven play of the season. They went winless in three straight games and were outscored a combined 17-6 in a lopsided loss to the Panthers and two setbacks to the Rangers from Dec. 30-Jan. 2.

The Lightning couldn't wait to get goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy back from COVID protocol, but it took him a few extra days to test out and rejoin the team.
The Lightning couldn't wait to get goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy back from COVID protocol, but it took him a few extra days to test out and rejoin the team. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Adding to the frustration, player returns depended not on whether they felt sick — they reported few to no symptoms — but by their daily test results.

On Dec. 29, the NHL shortened its mandatory isolation period in the United States after positive tests. Players, coaches and staff who test positive can return after five days if symptoms are gone or resolving themselves via negative test results.

Anyone in the protocol can be tested daily starting the day after infection. Two negative lab-based PCR tests done 24 hours apart, provided a player is asymptomatic or his symptoms have resolved, would allow him to be cleared before the sixth day.

On the sixth day, tests are done daily to produce either one lab-based PCR test that is negative or has a cycle threshold (CT) value over 30, or two negative rapid point-of-care tests collected more than two hours apart. Individuals also need to be cleared by the team physician.

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The CT value is key because PCR tests can find traces of the virus weeks and months after infection. CT value is a marker for how much, or little, viral genetic material can be detected; the higher the number, the better. So even if some virus is detected in a PCR test, if it’s above a certain CT value, an individual is not considered infectious.

“I didn’t have any symptoms,” Cirelli said. “I felt pretty good throughout the week, and I tested every day, just to get that number up and see where it’s at.”

Most Lightning players and coaches returned within five days. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy returned after seven days in the protocol, and assistant coach Rob Zettler took eight days to test out.

“You’re just anxious,” Zettler said. “When you wake up in the morning and you feel good, you feel normal, you feel like you could go work out, you feel like you could just go out and have a normal day … you can’t because your test shows that you can’t. It’s obviously frustrating.

“And I had three or four days of that where I felt like, ‘OK, I’m ready to go here,’ and I just wasn’t able to because I didn’t test out.”

The Lightning are a fully vaccinated team, and many players received booster shots when the team made them available earlier in the season. Now those who have returned from the protocol don’t have to be tested for the next 90 days.

Ahead of Saturday night’s game against the Bruins at Amalie Arena, 11 of the 12 players who went into protocol were back. Colton was the only one not cleared.

The Lightning hope their coronavirus issues are mostly behind them.

“I’m not worried about testing anymore, so that’s a good thing,” said defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who went through the protocol. “It sucks that it’s the second year in a row that we have to do the same things and postpone the games and not play the games and guys have to sit out even though everybody’s been vaccinated three times already.

“I can’t really judge what the NHL is thinking, but everybody’s getting sick of it.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

• • •

How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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