The NFL is nearing the middle of its 17-week regular season as it seeks to become the first major U.S. sport to play a full and uninterrupted season since the pandemic began. The schedule was juggled. The teams played in empty or partially filled stadiums. But the NFL is trudging on, hoping to make it to the Super Bowl in Tampa on February 7, but is aware that tougher times may be ahead.
“This is an incredibly tough opponent,” said Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, this week. “We said all along: It’s a very tough job. This is an easily transmissible virus and we are seeing its values rise in the community. And that puts us all at greater risk. ”
The NFL and NFL Players Association state that their testing program conducted more than 550,000 tests on players, coaches and select team members between August 1 and October 31, with 63 players and 99 coaches and staff testing positive .
“I think we can feel that our clubs have done a really good job overall,” said Sills. “But the job is by no means done. It will be more difficult. ”
The protocols were adjusted during the season. The league and NFLPA removed the only exception to their daily testing when they added game day testing. In a memo this week, the NFL urged teams to ask all players to wear masks on the sidelines during games, as requested by coaches and staff. The league advised teams that players must wear masks during pre-game or post-game interactions. The NFL also extended the bench area for each team during the Games to encourage distancing measures.
But perhaps the most significant change to the sport’s extensive protocols came when the NFL recently decided to mandate five-day quarantine times for those classified as high-risk close contacts with someone infected with the virus. Decisions about which contacts are considered high-risk are based on time, distance, whether a mask was in place, and how much ventilation might have been required, according to Sills.
The new approach has resulted in a compromise that creates more roster management complications and competition issues for the teams to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.
The Jacksonville Jaguars put 13 players on their Covid-19 reserve list in a single day (both players who tested positive and players who were exposed to the virus). The Raiders trained for a week without their entire starting offensive line. The New York Giants sent seven of their 11 offensive linemen home one day, but let six of them return the following day when they were not officially classified as high-risk contacts.
And when a team is unhappy with so many players being quarantined, the advice from the NFL is: wear a mask and keep your distance, and you’re far less likely to be classified as high-risk close contact.
“Our focus and efforts continue to be on mitigating these risks, especially those close high-risk contacts,” said Dawn Aponte, the NFL’s chief football administrative officer. “As we said before, these close, high-risk contacts are really things that are under the control of the clubs and individuals.”
On Thursday and Friday alone, at least 10 NFL teams saw a positive test result for a player, coach or team member. Some of these teams worked remotely. Others practiced personally. Numerous teams worked under the intense protocols for a team with a coronavirus case or exposed to the virus this week.
“These measures will certainly reduce your risk,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But is it low enough to mean they’ll make it? I mean, we’ve already seen that it really isn’t. You will have cases. How many teams in the NFL currently have cases? ”
The NFL said all along that it was expecting coronavirus cases. However, the recent ability and willingness to deal with positive test results while keeping the games on schedule has not gone unnoticed.
“Just an observation,” wrote former Packers manager Andrew Brandt on Twitter in the middle of the week. “In March there was a positive test in the NBA, with all sports suspended for months. Now there are positive tests for both teams playing an NFL game [Thursday] Night and the game is up. ”
The decision to postpone games was based on concerns about the transmission of the virus, according to Sills.
“I would say in the cases where we postponed games,” said Sills, “we have what we consider to be a continuous broadcast that we don’t understand as much.” … I would just say that we have had a large number of situations where we tested positive, a small number of high risk contacts, and clubs were able to safely continue operating during that time. ”
The league realizes that their biggest challenges lie ahead as they fret over protocol fatigue from players, coaches and staff, as well as potential compliance issues with teams outside of the playoff race. Deterioration in national conditions is a problem. One person familiar with NFL planning said the “vast majority” of coronavirus cases in the sport are due to exposure outside of the team’s facilities, adding, “When someone goes to their dentist [and is exposed]You can’t stop that. ”
With case numbers soaring in many states and winter approaching, Sills said, “We continue to believe that any of our 32 clubs are susceptible to infection every day we are in business, just like we are all across the country right now are . We must all continue to be extremely vigilant about measures that we know will mitigate the risk. ”