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Sources: NBA develops COVID-19 vaccine coverage

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and his staff have had extensive discussions with teams, players and agents about developing a policy to address the widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines across the league, sources told ESPN.

Several COVID-19 vaccines are in the final stages of approval and the NBA could be the first major professional North American sports league to manage wide distribution for players and coaches.

After a series of discussions with league executives, team doctors, and agents, the league has focused on a few key areas:

• The need to establish an education program for players and staff about vaccine selection, possible side effects and effectiveness in order to reassure players that they are ready to receive the vaccine. The process is in its earliest stages, and some players have already raised concerns about the vaccine to their agents and team doctors, sources told ESPN.

Educating players on measures to prevent the virus in the bubble in Orlando proved effective in promoting collaboration.

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"I would guess most players are ready to do this," said a prominent agent who represents a large number of players. "I think there will be social pressure on as many as possible to do this."

Others believe it will be more difficult to sell something. According to sources, players who had the virus – and now have some level of antibodies – may have to believe the vaccine is necessary. Between the restart of the season this summer and the start of this season's training camp, the NBA announced around 100 positive tests for players and staff. However, this does not apply to the players and coaches who caught the virus during the shutdown and the off-season and few of whom have identified themselves.

"We're going to need someone they trust, who is not involved in the league, who can interpret it for the skeptical guys," said another agent who represents all-stars. "Maybe it's someone like [former] President [Barack] Obama. Positioning this for the players as an opportunity to motivate others about what happened to masks."

• A guideline must be established for how quickly the league searches for injections. Regardless of their resources, league leaders know that priority is given to higher-risk populations, including healthcare workers, nursing home residents, key workers and others. The NBA strives to respect all guidelines and criteria enforced by the government and medical authorities to determine which populations receive a vaccine early on.

According to league sources, the NBA has no plans to ban individuals from getting a vaccine if they want one while it's available – although that would mean some players and teams may get access to the vaccine earlier than their peers, playing and living in another city. League executives already recognize that these types of policies can create a competitive balance issue if some teams are vaccinated before others.

Numerous teams have close ties with top health care providers in their regions, and availability of shots may vary by home state or region. Local governments still determine the distribution.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that some health officials are promoting early vaccination for professional athletes to showcase its effectiveness and safety in high-profile ways.

During the summer, the NBA was actively involved in the education and registration of vaccine trials. The league worked with partners from the National Urban League and UnidosUS to raise awareness and attract participants to vaccination trials in underserved communities.

In addition, the league took a first step last week when it updated its health and safety protocols to include provisions on vaccines. In the guide, the league announced that it would work with the National Basketball Players Association to determine if a vaccine is needed if it is found to be safe. Or, if not required, whether there would be separate protocols for players who were not vaccinated.

Of the 541 players who have been tested for COVID-19 since December 2, eight new players have returned positive tests. As previously announced, 48 players returned positive tests during the initial testing period from November 24th to December 24th. 1.

ESPN's Baxter Holmes contributed to this story.

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Melinda Martin