A panel of physicians has denied reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne's request to opt out of the 2020 season because of medical concerns -- a decision she said is at odds with the advice she received from her personal physician -- the Washington Mystics star and her agent told ESPN on Monday.
"The independent panel of doctors the league appointed to review high-risk cases have advised that I'm not high risk, and should be permitted to play in the bubble," Delle Donne said in a statement released to ESPN on Monday.
"I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me. My personal physician who has treated me for Lyme disease for years advised me that I'm at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19," Delle Donne added in her statement.
"I'm thinking things over, talking to my doctor and my wife, and look forward to sharing what I ultimately plan to do very soon."
"When I talked to Elena, her initial reaction was disbelief," Delle Donne's agent, Erin Kane, said about her client's response to the ruling by league doctors.
The panel of doctors was convened by the league and the WNBA Players Association.
"I know doctors don't always agree with each other and that there are different opinions on certain things within the medical community, and now I have a player who is in an incredibly difficult situation because of the way things lined up," Kane said.
Lyme disease is not included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's list of underlying conditions that could put someone at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
The panel of doctors considers the CDC's guidelines when evaluating high-risk cases, according to a draft of the league's health and safety protocol obtained by ESPN.
Dr. John Aucott, the director of Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center, told ESPN on Tuesday that he's not surprised by the panel's decision because "there's really only a handful of people in the country who are experts in chronic Lyme disease."
Lyme disease was discovered in the United States only in the late '70s, Aucott said. Of the 300,000 new Lyme disease cases diagnosed each year in the United States, he said, between 5% and 20% of the patients don't get better after treatment but instead suffer periodic bouts of fatigue, what patients call "brain fog," cognitive problems where they can't do their work and musculoskeletal pain.
Although Aucott cautioned that he's not in a position to make an informed judgment in Delle Donne's case and said the impact of Lyme disease on human immune systems isn't clear, he did say that greater weight in Delle Donne's case should be given to the opinion of her personal physician.
"I can tell you I care for a lot of patients with chronic Lyme disease and there's some of those patients I would advise not to put themselves in that kind of a position," Aucott said.
A league spokesperson declined to comment Monday evening, citing concerns about privacy with a player's private medical issues.
Delle Donne, 30, has yet to travel with her Mystics teammates to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where WNBA players, coaches and support personnel live under a series of strict medical and housing protocols.
The six-time All-Star has had chronic Lyme disease since 2008 and has spoken publicly for years about the need for a cure. She also is recovering from back surgery in January to repair three herniated disks, Kane said.
"It's still possible she'll opt out," Kane said. "Like a lot of people, she's making a choice between what's best for her from a health standpoint and what's best for her from a financial standpoint for her and her family."
A panel of three physicians was established to advise the WNBA on whether a player can be medically excused for the season, which is scheduled to start at the end of the month. Players deemed to be high risk or who have a medical reason to opt out will receive their full salary. Players who don't meet that medical threshold, in the opinion of the panel, can still opt out and skip the season if the panel does not grant them a medical waiver, but they won't get paid their salary in that event.
Although Lyme disease isn't mentioned by the CDC as a condition that would place an individual at "high risk," Kane told ESPN that the Mystics' team physician, Dr. Anne Rettig, sent a letter to the medical panel advising it that Delle Donne was cleared to play but noting that she should be considered "higher risk."
Decisions by the medical panel are final, and players have no ability to appeal, Kane said.
In a statement to ESPN on Monday, Mystics general manager and coach Mike Thibault said: "As with all of our players, we have and will support Elena throughout this process. The health and well-being of our players is of the utmost importance."
Delle Donne's teammate Tina Charles, who was acquired from the New York Liberty in a trade during the offseason, was also waiting for a decision from the league's medical panel. If Delle Donne and Charles miss the season, the Mystics would be down to 10 players on the roster.
"My heart has gone out to everyone who has had to choose between their health and having an income, and of course to anyone who has lost their job, their home, and anyone they love in this pandemic," Delle Donne said in her statement.