On March 13, a recommendation came from the American College of Surgeons: Minimize, postpone, or cancel all elective surgery amid the spread of coronavirus. This instruction was shared the next day by the U.S. Surgeon General, and in the two weeks that have followed, it’s been echoed in executive orders issued across the country.
In that same time frame, MLB teams announced pitchers who would undergo Tommy John surgery: Tyler Beede of the Giants, Chris Sale of the Red Sox, Noah Syndergaard of the Mets. But what does it mean to have the procedure in a pandemic? Especially when every medical resource is precious—and pro athletes are already under fire for receiving preferential testing and treatment.
Legally, teams and players are on solid ground. The national recommendations are just recommendations, and it’s still feasible to perform a surgery like Tommy John in many parts of the U.S. Among the states that have issued executive orders on the subject, there’s varied language on what exactly is prohibited, from “elective” procedures (New Jersey) to “non-essential” (Ohio) to “non-urgent” (Kentucky). In many states, doctors themselves can determine which of their own procedures fit that terminology, at least for now. So, barring additional local regulations, an individual practice can quite easily make a legal determination that its essential procedures may include Tommy John.
“I think it’s a really fuzzy line,” says Christopher Scott, the chair of medical ethics and health policy at Baylor College of Medicine, when it comes to defining what procedures are, legally speaking, essential or not.