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NBA’s Dr. Leroy Sims on the COVID-19 vaccine

The NBA senior vice president of medical affairs guides the league and his family during the pandemic

Dr. Leroy Sims has been on hundreds of Zoom calls since the pandemic hit the United States. Many were of sobering variety. But on Sunday afternoon, the NBA senior vice president of medical affairs led a Zoom call that had special meaning to him as he talked to his grandmother, uncle and other family members and close friends who were mostly African American about why they should take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“There was some skepticism,” Sims told The Undefeated in a phone interview on Jan. 22. “They asked, ‘Were Black people included in the clinical trials? How did they really know it worked?’ I used a slide with results and graphs showing treatment vs. placebo. I walked them through the vaccine development process and how this timeline works. It helped knowing that I got vaccinated after having my own hesitation initially, which I shared. I told them that it wasn’t mandatory that I got vaccinated, but my research and reviews helped me make my decision. I said I would recommend it to grandma. That I swayed her helped them too.

“Just being able to have someone break it down for them, someone speaking to them who they know and trust, and someone there to answer all their questions gave everyone across the board more comfort with the vaccines. I appealed to the reality that they, my parents and elders, got other vaccines and vaccinated us throughout the years. So, I know they aren’t anti-vaxxers. I encouraged them to ask questions, remain curious and make informed decisions, and not just accept things based on blind faith, because medicine is supposed to be based on evidence.”

Sims played a major role in the medical success of the NBA bubble, where 22 teams completed the 2019-20 regular season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, after it was temporarily halted due to the pandemic. Now Sims and the NBA have to get through perhaps the most challenging season in league history as players, coaches and other team personnel are catching COVID-19 and games are being canceled.

Sims talked to The Undefeated about how the NBA is trying to navigate the season, his thoughts on players getting vaccinated, fear among African Americans wanting to take the vaccine, taking the vaccine himself and more in the following Q&A.


What is the state of the NBA as it attempts to play out the season with the challenges that come with COVID-19?

I would say that if you judge us independently of what happened in the bubble, we’re doing as well as we expected and are probably where we thought we would be. Judging us against the bubble, where we were in a controlled environment and we had no players test positive, then it makes the season seem like a contrast. But in reality, in both situations, we were able to generate health and safety protocols to keep people healthy and safe. If you look at where we are with this season, we’re playing the majority of our games.

When do you think NBA players and the coaching staff will start getting the vaccine?

We’re not jumping the line. We understand that the vaccine is rolling out in such a way that you’re trying to get to the people who are most at risk or most vulnerable first, that includes front-line workers like myself working in the ER [emergency room], because we’re around so many people who could have the virus. It includes people who are elderly, living in congregate settings, like nursing homes, or people who have chronic medical conditions. Those people who are at risk of severe complications, hospitalizations or deaths if they were to get COVID, we’re focused on them. After that, we’ll open it up. The vaccine will start to be distributed to others in the community.

We recognize that our basketball players are young and healthy, so they will get vaccinated or have the opportunity to get vaccinated when it’s their turn. So we won’t be jumping the line there. As it relates to some of our coaches and older individuals, some of them are in categories that allow them to get vaccinated. But that will bear out the way that the local hospitals, departments of public health, are rolling out the vaccine and setting up the prioritization.

Is the NBA already putting a plan in place when the players can get vaccinated?

Yeah. So, what’s happening right now is that I’m a part of a group, including our social responsibility in our player programming groups, putting together an educational process and educational sessions for our players, our team staff, our ownership group. And once we get that rolled out and we have the discussions about the vaccine, then when we have an opportunity, we will come up with a plan for rolling it out. We did a great job, and we do a great job annually with the flu vaccine.

We are not the United States of America where we have to vaccinate 100 million people. We have a pretty small subset. So our ability to handle this across the team should bode well for us. We will be in a good position.

What has been the biggest scare so far for you in your role with the NBA during this time?

I wouldn’t say we’ve had big scares. Remember, you’re asking an emergency room physician. So certain things do scare me, but I would say there is unease in general, when people test positive, but that’s in the community, that’s in the ER, that’s in the National Basketball Association. I’ve seen the impact of what the virus can do in particular, when people have chronic medical conditions, they’re immune-compromised, they’re older. So that’s the thing that I don’t like, seeing people test positive, but we also know that people who are healthy, these young athletes, that they tend to do pretty well, and what we want to do is contain the spread. So we haven’t had any wildfires and so I’m pleased with that.

But just the mere fact that people are testing positive, that is a point of unease and I’m hoping, as a country, we can really get to a place where people are abiding by the health and safety guidelines from the department of public health and get vaccinated and we can stem the tide on this pandemic.

Even though the NBA is no longer in a bubble, what lessons did you take from it that you have implemented into this season?

No. 1, we need to make sure that whatever protocols we have in place, that we develop them collaboratively with experts. And so we went right back to the well, and we stayed in touch in cooperation with our infectious disease experts, and that’s on our side. And then we worked collaboratively with the players association to come up with protocols and policies that we could get across that players can be compliant with. And so that’s first and foremost, that we came up with a plan that we feel could keep us protected.

Remember back in May when we were talking about going into Orlando, Florida was an epicenter of the pandemic, and it became one and our protocol stood up against that. Here we are now, it turns out California has become the epicenter and still the same thing that we’re able to have a health and safety plan in place that’s by and large kept players, team staff and others safe. And so that’s been the highlight is that we feel comfortable and confident with what we’re doing for the protection of people in the setting of a pandemic.

The G League will soon be going to the site of the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida to play their season. I am sure a lot of people probably have asked why doesn’t the NBA go back there. What is the answer to that?

What we did last summer was an extraordinary experiment and experience. One where we didn’t have a blueprint for what we were doing and we came out pretty successful. But at the same time, we asked a lot of everyone who had to be in that bubble to be away from your family, to live in this environment where your social interactions were limited. It was not only a physical toll on some people, it was a mental toll, it was an emotional toll. And so from a medical point of view, that’s a big ask to ask players, ask staff members to do that again. And you only want to do that if you absolutely have to.

And so, that aside, from some of the business reasons why people don’t want to go back into a bubble, we also have to safeguard people’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. And we have an eye on that, and so unless we absolutely have to, people would prefer to be home than to be living on a campus for several weeks or months at a time.

How did the NBA bubble change your career?

I have a visibility that I didn’t have previously. And it has led to giving me the opportunity to share with the world some of my thoughts and feelings as it relates to medicine, as it relates to sports, as it relates to the pandemic in particular, and as it relates to the Black community and things that I feel very passionate about. So, I have been able to share my feelings about increasing the population of underrepresented minorities in medicine and trying to improve the pipelines.

I’ve been able to talk about disparities in health care in a more public platform. And most recently I did an interview with San Mateo County [California] Health, talking about the vaccine. And so it’s been an opportunity to externalize some of the thoughts I’ve had, some of the career objectives that I’ve wanted to pursue. And so that’s really what has changed for me.

When you got the vaccine, what was that experience like for you?

Getting the vaccine was a moment for me to exhale, because it signals that we were at a point where we really could start to see the end of the pandemic. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I had my hesitation. I wanted to see the data. I did hesitate because of the timeline of developing the vaccine. I know what the timeline for developing vaccines is and in general, it takes years because incorporated in the vaccine development process is two or three years of surveillance after the vaccine has gone through phase three trials.

So I knew it would take time, but the speed with which the vaccine was developed, that was a surprise. I wanted to see the data in terms of the safety. I wanted to see the data in terms of the effectiveness. I also wanted to see the data in terms of who they enrolled in these clinical trials, was there diversity, because you can’t take a homogeneous group, give that group vaccine, and then try to extrapolate to the diversity that we have in this country for something that’s going to be rolled out to tens, if not hundreds of millions people. So once I saw all of that data, about safety, efficacy, diversity in the clinical trial, and then I was able to get my questions answered, that’s when I started to feel comfortable about getting the vaccine and likewise feel comfortable promoting the vaccine to others.

When you hear that African Americans are getting COVID vaccines at a lower rate than white Americans in 16 states, and in many cases two or three times higher, what do you make of those statistics?

The pandemic is revealing racial and health inequities that have always been there. So when we talk about the differences between the Black community and white community or other communities, there are stark differences in terms of longevity and life expectancy, in terms of infant mortality, in terms of rates of diabetes, right now in terms of rate of getting COVID or dying from COVID. So, it’s not surprising that we are living out the inequities once again. This case being getting vaccinated.

People want to put forth that part of the reason why Blacks are getting vaccinated at a lower rate is because they’re suspicious and they’re hesitant and they just won’t take the vaccine. It’s not true. Black people vaccinate their kids, we give our kids measles, mumps, rubella, we give our kids tetanus vaccines. Black people are traveling more now than we ever have internationally. And guess what? We take our typhoid vaccine. We take yellow fever vaccines. We’re not suspicious of vaccines. We’re suspicious of the system.

This system has kept us away from access. The conversation needs to turn away from, ‘Why are Black people still suspicious?’ And we need to address institutional untrustworthiness. So what I can tell you is this, in talking to people, my family, my community, I’ve received messages on social media, email, text, where people have said, ‘listening to you explain about the vaccine, having you answer our questions makes me more likely to get vaccinated or want to get vaccinated.’ And that is a win, that’s a win.

And so my message is that we need to take advantage of organizations that are in the Black community and the brown community and the Native American community. Organizations and leaders who have the eyes, ears and the hearts of these people and use them to help promote the message. We need to take advantage of the National Medical Association, the largest association of Black physicians in the country, and put them forward in campaigns, in commercials, in webinars, helping to share the message about the vaccine, the history that this mRNA technology is more than a decade old. About how vaccines are truly developed, about the diversity of the clinical trials, the safety and significance of the vaccine, because the education allows people to make informed decisions and to get more comfortable with getting the vaccine. We’re not anti-vaxxers.

Do you even have a round number or estimate on how many African Americans have either texted you, called you, emailed you or hit you on social media, whether it’s family, friends or somebody they know and asked you about the vaccine?

Dozens since I got my first shot on Dec. 18. And as a matter of fact, my extended family, because they saw the recent posting with San Mateo County Health. I organized a Zoom for us and some of our closest friends with the same formal presentation that I’ve given to the NBA London office, or as my January health brief this month. …

Another thing is that my mom is part of this prayer line. That’s on AM radio in Florida. They do a broadcast every Tuesday and my mom had me come on and partly just to show off her son, but also to give words of encouragement about where we are with the pandemic. I didn’t focus so much on the vaccine during that one, but it’s just that hearing from someone who has walked a similar walk, who understands the history and the now story. And I know that that broadcast gets a few hundred people who tuned in. So I’m trying my best part.

How much pride and also pressure comes with the fact that you are a trusted voice in the Black community?

Pride, the utmost. I get goose bumps as I talk about this stuff. The community has lifted me up to get here. I had scholarships from my church to attend college. I got scholarships from the Boys & Girls Club. I have had so much support from the community, from my community. And I know that I’ve been given an opportunity and to whom much is given, much is expected. I’m proud to do it.

Have you completed your vaccination?

I got my second one on Jan. 8. On the first day, I felt tired and I felt achy. I got my shot about 10:15 in the morning and that afternoon I felt tired and achy. I went to bed somewhat early, but you remember from the bubble, I’m generally tired. So going to bed at 8 wasn’t that big of a surprise to me. But the next day I felt great. Me and my wife and kids took a hike. I felt good after that. I never had a fever or any other significant side effects. And then after the second shot, which is where you hear more people tend to have side effects, I didn’t have any. And at no point did I take any Tylenol or Motrin or anything like that to mask symptoms each day.

From the day that I got the shot forward, I would record myself on camera, taking my temperature, taking my oxygen saturation and just describing how I felt. And I wanted to be able to give a transparent analysis of how I was doing. And so I didn’t take anything. That way if I did get a fever, I would share it because people need to know the truth. That transparency goes a long way to building that trust and bolstering the trust. So I wanted to be completely forthcoming with what I experienced in getting the vaccine.

Are you worried about the new contagious strain? Are players testing positive twice?

It’s something we keep our eye on and that’s a part of the regular job that we have … keeping an eye on what’s emerging in terms of new strains, in terms of new cases, case positivity rate, as well as improvements. Tracking all of that data. So, in addition to reading what’s coming out in the medical literature from the CDC, we’re doing our own testing and internal research and analysis.

So we have our own net. We talk to our experts about what it means with these new variants. What type of impact can we anticipate. And so far, we feel pretty comfortable with the information that we have and what’s coming out and how we’re operating in the face of the new emerging information.

When does the NBA or when do you anticipate leaguewide doors being opened comfortably for fans to come in?

That’s hard to predict in part because of how this virus is going. In March, April, a little bit of a hump, and in July another spike, and then not another one again until November, December. So it really is hard to predict. And then you have some states that are having a lot steeper spike than others. So when you say across the league, it will vary. Even right now, you see only a handful of teams are even given local government approval to have fans right now, so it really is hard to predict. I do think that the vaccine will make a significant difference in allowing us to get fans back into the buildings and to being able to gather in ways that we are recommended not doing right now.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.