5 questions after Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford’s positive COVID test

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has tested positive for COVID-19. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has tested positive for COVID-19. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic announced coach Steve Clifford had tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, becoming the first publicly announced team personnel member to test positive during the 2021 season.

He said he was shocked by the positive test because he had received the second Moderna vaccine shot on Thursday, the same day he registered his first positive test. The good news so far is that Clifford said he is asymptomatic.

Despite some hope this is merely a false positive, in all likelihood, Clifford will not be on the sideline for Sunday’s game against the Indiana Pacers and could possibly miss the team’s upcoming road trip to Cleveland and Memphis.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has tested positive for COVID-19 and will likely miss Sunday’s game. How much longer he will be out is uncertain. So far, he says he is not experiencing any symptoms.

Any person who receives a confirmed positive test and enters the league’s health and safety protocols goes into a 10-14 quarantine period before they can rejoin the team. They must then register two consecutive negative tests before resuming team activities.

Obviously, with a coach, he will not need the same physical ramp-up period a player might.

Still, the team is going to remain in the league’s heightened health and safety protocols for the time being. And there will be a careful eye on them before each game to make sure the league does not have a spread of the virus at this late stage of the season.

The league has had its share of scares this year but has largely done well to keep the virus contained.

To this point, the Magic have done a good job staying away. Mohamed Bamba is the only player on the Magic to miss games due to health and safety protocols — missing four games from Jan. 15-22. And the team has had only one game postponed due to health and safety protocols — when the Boston Celtics were not able to field a team for their Jan. 13 game.

The Orlando Magic had one other scare when Dallas Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber tested positive for the coronavirus amidst a larger spread within the Mavericks team after the Magic played them on Jan. 9. Fortunately, nothing happened from there.

While there were a few cases of coronavirus among players before the team entered the bubble, the team has stayed publicly COVID-free until this point.

The good news is that it was caught, that Clifford was vaccinated and is feeling no symptoms. He was in good spirits when he met with the media Saturday.

"“Not to make a joke of it,” Clifford began joking Saturday when he met with the media. “I just talked to Mo a few minutes ago. With this body, I’m not sure the pandemic can really hurt me.”"

Plenty of questions remains as the magic deal with their first in-season case of COVID.

How did this happen?

The timeline is a bit uncertain and no one can ever be too sure exactly how a person gets the virus. But here is what we know:

The Orlando Magic played the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday when players from both teams were exposed to an official who would later test positive for COVID-19.

Players and anyone on the court or interacting with the team are tested twice daily as part of the league’s health and safety protocols. With everyone interacting with someone with a confirmed positive test both teams entered the league’s enhanced health and safety protocols.

Following Tuesday’s game, Clifford returned negative tests Wednesday and Thursday morning. Clifford reported he received the second dose of the Moderna vaccine Thursday afternoon.

However during the second test, revealed after Thursday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Clifford returned a positive test.

Clifford went into isolation Friday and quarantined away from the team. He said he was checking his temperature and oxygenation numbers every few hours. On Friday, Clifford said he returned two negative tests.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

He was shocked then when his results Saturday came back positive. That forced the Magic to cancel their scheduled practice Saturday afternoon, already pushed back because of the high alert the team was on.

For now, the Orlando Magic are planning to play their game Sunday against the Indiana Pacers. But Clifford is not likely to be on the sideline for that game as he remains in isolation for further tests and self-observation.

What does this mean for the Magic moving forward?

Steve Clifford took another test Saturday afternoon and will take another one Sunday morning. The hope is that both tests will return negative and that he might be able to coach again Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Those who test positive can return either at least 10 days after symptoms subside and they return two negative tests or if they return two negative tests on the more involved PCR tests within a 24-hour period.

If Clifford’s Saturday afternoon test comes back negative and he tested negative again Sunday afternoon, that leaves a little window for him to be cleared to return to the team before the 8 p.m. tip against the Indiana Pacers.

Steve Clifford said he will likely not be on the bench for the game Sunday, leaving interim duties for assistant coach Tyrone Corbin.

"“I think the NBA has been incredibly organized about how we’ve done COVID testing,” Clifford said Saturday. “I want to coach badly. I’ve been communicating with our players for the last couple of hours with how you feel. But the biggest thing is it would only take a couple of teams to send this thing out of whack. That’s what the league has been on top of. Totally organized. So it is important that we all abide by their rules. I’m comfortable with that and I know the players are also.”"

The Magic seemingly expressed some hope these were false-positive tests and that Clifford will not miss much time. But it is very realistic too that Clifford will be out for a while.

Yes, in this crazy injury-filled season, even the coach is facing a potential prolonged absence. From that point, Clifford’s return would depend on whether he would be able to meet the league’s testing guidelines and return the negative tests and stay symptom-free to be back on the bench.

Until then, Clifford said he will be able to watch the team’s games and communicate with coaches. He hopes he will be able to help some even if he has to stay away from the team. Clifford is confident his staff will be able to guide the team while he is away.

Didn’t Steve Clifford miss time before?

Steve Clifford has had a share of health scares throughout his coaching career. And, at 59 years old, he was considered to be among the coaches who were at higher risk if they caught COVID-19.

Of note, Clifford suddenly left the Orlando Magic’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the team’s final road trip before the 2020 season shut down. He would spend part of the night in the hospital before rejoining the team in Houston.

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At the time, the fear was that he might have had COVID as the disease was beginning to spread and impact life in the country. But it turned out to be a bout of dehydration.

Clifford was asked in the aftermath of that incident whether he thought it could be COVID as players and staff around the league were already discussing a league response to the growing pandemic. But he was confident it was not considering his symptoms.

During the 2018 season, his final in Charlotte, Clifford also missed 25 games as he dealt with headaches associated with sleep deprivation. When he took the Magic job ahead of the 2019 season, he said he was being diligent about making sure he went to sleep at regular times.

Clifford also had two stents put in his heart during an emergency surgery that forced him to miss a few games in 2013.

Clifford has coached through all of these health issues and has been fine. But they all raise the specter that contracting COVID could lead to serious issues for him. He is certainly someone at high risk.

"“I’ve read about this a lot,” Clifford said Saturday. “I think the one thing, and I thank the Magic for this, is we have all been able to go through the vaccination process. I got my second vaccine on Thursday. If you look at it in terms of percentages and numbers that I’m not really in danger. That with the fact my temperature, my oxygenation numbers, how I feel, I’m very comfortable with that.”"

How did he test positive even if vaccinated?

The somewhat confusing part of this whole scenario is that Steve Clifford received his second vaccine shot Thursday and still tested positive for the coronavirus.

In the hopes of this being a false positive, some have suggested that perhaps testing so soon after getting the second dose might have led to a positive test. However, the CDC disputes that notion saying the approved COVID vaccines do not lead to a positive test — although they may lead to positive antibody tests.

Under the league’s health and safety protocols and according to the CDC, a person is not considered fully vaccinate until two weeks after their final dose of the vaccine. So Clifford would not be eligible to return under any sped-up guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated.

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The CDC approved the vaccines under an emergency use authorization. The vaccine has been determined to be effective at stopping the spread of the disease and keeping people from getting sick. But its full effects — and even whether a third booster shot might be needed — is not fully understood yet. The CDC still recommends those who are vaccinated to continue following mask and social distancing guidelines until enough people are vaccinated.

Still, none of this precludes a positive test for COVID-19. At least not until a person is fully vaccinated.

The CDC as recently as March still suggested vaccinated individuals should still watch for symptoms up to two weeks after exposure to an infected person even if they do not have to quarantine during that time.

This should not be a situation that dissuades anyone from taking the vaccine. Again, for now, Clifford is reporting no symptoms and said he feels fine. The vaccine it seems is doing its work.

"“For me, I just don’t understand why anybody would be against the vaccination,” Clifford said Saturday. “I think the more people who do it in our country, it’s better for all of us. I’m appreciative of the Magic of the way they organized this for us to get us vaccinations in a timely and orderly way. It’s not only good for you personally, but again, if you think about the people who live around you, it makes it best for everybody.”"

All adults in the United States are now eligible to receive the vaccine.

From the way Clifford described his experience with the vaccine, it sounds like at least the vaccine has been made available to players on the team. It is safe to assume some have taken the team up on that offer.

When can we cast this season into the sun?

Not soon enough.

It has been an incredibly rough season for the Magic that has seen them sink to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. They are in line to receive one of the top picks in the upcoming draft. And they have faced an unusual and incredible amount of injuries that derailed hopes for a third straight playoff berth and led to the team ultimately breaking apart at the trade deadline.

It is a wonder that with all the games this team has missed — by far the most in the league — virtually none of them have been to health and safety protocols from the global pandemic going on around the league.

The Magic are still trying to make the most of this season and gain something from it for the sake of their young players. Clifford is confident his team will be ready to play Sunday despite his absence.

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But there are just 13 games left for the Magic. And they will certainly be happy to see this thing end so they can regroup next season.