UAE Team Emirates medical staff have acknowledged that the battle to keep COVID-19 at bay during the 2022 Tour de France is proving difficult, despite the team being extremely meticulous about their precautions.
However, the UAE team’s chief medical officer, Adriano Rotunno, also criticized the way the Tour de France public was allowed to approach the team buses only during the two years of previous pandemics.
For the first time since 2020, while the team buses are technically locked in a paddock for everyone except the media and a few VIPs at departures, at arrivals they are more accessible than before.
Interviewed by a small group of journalists including Cycling news at the start of Stage 9 about the relative closeness of the fans that morning, Rotunno said: “It’s an example of how the race set-up doesn’t make it easy for us. We all do our part but it is difficult to try to mitigate risks related to exposure.
He also pointed out that “it’s difficult in a race like this, where there are no masks worn [by the public] and we are among the public.”
UAE Team Emirates lost one of its support runners to COVID-19 on Friday when Vegard Stake Laengen tested positive and did not start, which the team acknowledged as a ‘big loss’ .
“He complained of some symptoms at midnight the day before and he [had] tested negative that day but the next morning he tested positive,” Rotunno said.
He said the testing process “depends on the day as people work and travel. Sometimes I do half in the morning and half in the evening when I get there I try to group them into only once, but usually in the morning.”
Rotunno confirmed that the measures already in place at UAE Team Emirates had been reinforced at all levels and on Friday Chief Sporting Director Joxean Fernández Matxin said riders were now in separate rooms and with separate trainers .
In 2020, interviewed by Cycling newsUAE performance coordinator Jeroen Swart said he had written “a 40-page protocol to cover every aspect of what we do. It is evidence-based and aims to guide riders and staff in all their activities”.
Set a month before the Tour, or earlier, Swart reviewed a number of different research papers from other sports, particularly football, and the steps they had taken, as well as introducing his own work and conclusions in the protocols.
“We are doing everything from typical measures – the ones everyone is familiar with, such as masks and hand sanitizing solutions in several places on the bus and vehicles – to additional measures, such as installing a filtration unit air on the bus to help remove viruses and other contamination,” Swart said at the time.
“Then we have other protocols, from how we handle food preparation, to massages, and pretty much everything that goes on day-to-day.”
“It was pre-bubble PCRs and testing to create a bubble before everyone arrives, that’s with our internal testing,” Rotunno added.
“Then it’s mask mandates, it’s hand hygiene, social distancing and no autographs or things like that, no socializing outside of our bubble. It’s about maintaining distance and hygiene.”
Regarding the testing itself, a critical line of defence, Rotunno said: “We test every day or two, all staff and all riders. Our main concern is the health of the rider, we cannot allow a rider to drive a Grand Tour if they are ill, we would be risking the peloton, the team, the race and the community.
“For us, it is important that we stick to these protocols and if we have a positive result, that is how the dice have fallen for us and we must deal with this situation.
Regarding how the anti COVID-19 bubbles work, he explained: “Each team is only allowed to have 30 people in the bubble, so it’s 8 riders and 22 staff members. It’s a process laborious who tests everyone all the time, but that’s what we do, and that’s how we found out we had our first positive driver yesterday [Friday].”
He warned that the process of testing, protocols and checks was the main obstacle to the virus causing even more damage.
“The more we can mitigate risk and limit damage, or exposure, the better in the end, because nothing stops Covid from ending our run.”
The crucial question, in any case, for UAE Team Emirates is, as one reporter asked, how much of a risk COVID-19 poses to Pogačar.
“As much as anyone else,” Rotunno replied. “There are 200 runners at risk, obviously for us there is more at stake but unfortunately a virus is a virus and we can try to limit it as much as possible. But it is very difficult.