With more than 90 players in COVID protocols, here's what the NBA plans to do about it: What we know

The NBA on Sunday postponed five more games because of players and staff entering the league’s COVID health and safety and protocols, bringing the total of NBA postponements to seven this season.

The increases in NBA COVID cases coincides with an increase worldwide.

The league expected cases to rise as fall turned to winter and more time was spent indoors and is trying to mitigate spread with enhanced measures, including more testing and mask-wearing through the holiday season.

Several teams, including the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings, have been hit hard with COVID outbreaks.

We take a look at how COVID is impacting the NBA:

What games have been postponed? And will more be postponed?

Dec. 14: Detroit at Chicago

Dec. 16: Chicago at Toronto

Dec. 19: Denver at Brooklyn; Cleveland at Atlanta; New Orleans at Philadelphia

Dec. 20: Orlando at Toronto

Dec. 21: Washington at Brooklyn

Given the recent trajectory of COVID, it stands to reason the league will postpone more games. Last season due to COVID, 31 games were postponed – and made up – so that each team completed a 72-game schedule.

However, in 2020-21, the league announced its schedule in two part – the first half before the season started and the second half of the schedule later in the season so the schedule-makers could adjust for postponed games. The league doesn’t have that luxury this season, making it more difficult to reschedule games.

To help reduce the number of postponements, the league and the National Basketball Players Association (players union) reached an agreement that would allow teams to add players beyond the regulated roster size to accommodate for decimated rosters.

Will there be a pause in the NBA season?

COVID is a fluid situation, but, as USA TODAY reported last week, there is no consideration now to pause the season like the NBA did nearly two years ago. The league is guided by infection disease and public health experts and will act accordingly. A pause for two, three, four weeks is unlikely to change the trajectory of COVID cases upon returning given the numbers of cases experts are projecting for the winter.

The goal remains to play an 82-game schedule and stay on the October-June calendar, culminating with the Finals and draft in June and then free agency in July. There are many reasons, including fan interest, bookkeeping and regular time off, why the league wants to keep that schedule.

Consider this, too: not only the league but public health and infectious disease experts view December of 2021 much differently than March of 2020 given the access to vaccines that have proven to help lower severe illness and death.

How many players are in the health and safety protocols?

More than 90 players, including more than 70 this month and more than 50 in the past eight days, have entered the league’s health and safety protocols.

Three coaches (the Lakers’ Frank Vogel, Indiana’s Rick Carlisle and Sacramento’s Alvin Gentry) and one president (Toronto’s Masai Ujiri) have also been or are in the health and safety protocols.

In league parlance, most players and staff who enter health and safety protocols either tested positive for COVID or returned an inconclusive test.

Kevin Durant (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (34), two of the early leaders in the MVP race, have both been placed in the league's health and safety protocols in recent days.

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and James Harden and Atlanta’s Trae Young, Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, are among the players who have spent time in health and safety protocols.

While a significant number of players have tested positive, a majority of players have been asymptomatic, according to a person who spoke to USA TODAY Sports under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the topic.

Why are there so many positive tests?

It’s a combination of factors, starting with the increase in COVID cases across the country and a highly transmissible Omicron variant that accounted for 73% of new cases last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also, last season, NBA players had tighter restrictions on going out. That is not the case this season, and as long as it’s allowed by municipalities, people will go out, including NBA players. It’s unlikely NBA players agree to go back to last season’s more restrictive guidelines.

As was the case last season, there is no indication that on-court transition is the reason for the increase among NBA players.

Will the NBA follow the NFL? And what is cycle threshold?

Last week, the NFL updated its COVID protocols, and vaccinated players will no longer be tested unless they are experiencing symptoms. Also, players who test positive can test out of quarantine quicker as long as that person is asymptomatic for at least 24 hours and meets certain requirements such as a low viral load. That is measured by what is called cycle threshold, and if a player’s cycle threshold reaches a level that indicates low viral load, the player can exit isolation.

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The NBA could borrow from the NFL – still testing vaccinated players but allowing asymptomatic players with a low viral load to re-join the team sooner than a 10-day isolation or two consecutive negative tests at least 24 hour apart.

Theoretically, that would help cut down on postponements and allow teams to play more games with a more complete roster. While understanding teams could be shorthanded for some games, the league still wants to put out a quality product.

Will there be a limited number of fans at more NBA games?

Acting on an Ontario ordinance, capacity at Scotiabank Arena, where the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs play, has been reduced 50% “as we all work together to prioritize public health with increasing COVID-19 cases in Ontario,” Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment said in a statement last week.

It wouldn’t be surprising if other cities or states or the NBA implemented similar rules for arenas.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.