NFL COVID-19 Outbreak: How this affects the NFL

By: Madeleine Hudak

It was only a matter of time before the first COVID-19 outbreak of the 2020 NFL season. On Tuesday morning, the NFL released a statement announcing that the Tennessee Titans had eight positive COVID tests – specifically, three new player positives and five personnel. The Titans resultantly suspended in-person club activities; despite no positive tests, their Sunday opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, out of an abundance of caution, followed suit. Per ESPN’s Dan Graziano, the positive Titans players were all asymptomatic as of Tuesday morning, likely aiding the outbreak. 

While the alarm bells are starting to ring on the viability of the NFL’s 101 season, the show, unsurprisingly, is still attempting to go on. Both the Titans and the Vikings are preparing for their Week 4 matchups via virtual Zoom meetings; per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the NFL intends to have the Titans’ Sunday matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers as scheduled, though contingency plans are being discussed. 

COVID Protocol Review

In terms of preparation and protocol, the NFL has implemented robust testing measures to mitigate potential outbreaks; NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 Protocols designate tiers for different levels of club personnel and corresponding testing schedules to best minimize the spread of the virus. Players and essential personnel fall into Tier 1 due to their direct and frequent access with players, while personnel that require “close proximity” to Tier 1 individuals and periodic access to Restricted Areas are designated Tier 2. Individuals in these tier levels, accordingly, are tested daily; all players are tested the day before games to ensure eligibility to play.

Pursuant to protocol, the eight members of the Titans that tested positive will be immediately placed in isolation and receive regular follow-up testing until they receive medical clearance from the Club’s Head Team Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician. Essential to reducing the risk of further team transmission is contact tracing. The Titans and Vikings will both likely engage in tracing investigations that include using Kinexon tracking devices to determine exposure; mandatory tracing procedures include participating in a weekly virtual check-in meeting to review the team’s Kinexon data for the previous week. In the event of three or more “Close Contacts” to either symptomatic or COVID-positive individuals, teams must further conduct tracing interviews and identify mitigation strategies and steps taken in light of the collected data. 

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell circulated a memorandum to Club Executives and Presidents following the outbreak to outline steps taken by the league in compliance with the NFLPA protocol; of note, the memo stated that the Vikings thus far have had no positive tests or reports of symptomatic personnel. In addition, Goodell confirmed the necessary contact tracing data had been reviewed by the league, including all members who worked the Titans-Vikings game in Minnesota and officials from the matchup. 

What This Means for Week 4

While the current consensus for the Titans and Steelers is to prepare for Sunday’s matchup as scheduled, there’s still too much up in the air with respect to contract tracing data and potential further positive tests to say for sure. As of Tuesday afternoon, ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported that contact tracing thus far identified 48 close contacts with the eight positive individuals.

Individuals who have had close contact with positive individuals must isolate themselves for a 48-hour period and receive a PCR virus test if they remain asymptomatic; within 24 hours of receiving the results of the first PCR virus test, if such test comes back negative, the individual must undergo a second test. Individuals must isolate until receiving a negative first test, and upon receiving the results of the second test, should they remain asymptomatic, may return to club facilities.

As most of the Titans’ organization likely are identified as “close contact” individuals, this essentially means they’re barred from practicing for the next three days. At best, the team may engage in a walkthrough on Saturday for preparation. 

The matchups that are up in the air for Week 4 are the Titans-Steelers, Vikings-Texans; in a perfect world, the NFL could simply reschedule the games out of caution during the teams’ respective bye weeks. Unfortunately, the Steelers and Texans have Week 8 byes while the Titans and Vikings have Week 7 byes. Cancellation of the games is certainly out of the question, as the Steelers and Titans are both undefeated and their matchup likely has massive AFC playoff implications down the road. 

A tricky solution focused on the Titans-Steelers matchup, as that has the most immediate cause for concern, involves switching around some bye weeks. The Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens for Week 7, who also happen to have a bye week in Week 8; technically, the league could reschedule the Week 7 matchup between the Steelers and Ravens for Week 8, move this Sunday’s matchup for the Titans and Steelers to Week 7, and push the Ravens’ bye up to Week 7. 

It gets a bit trickier for the Vikings and Texans, should the Vikings incur positive tests in the coming days. Another feasible rescheduling solution involves adding a Week 18 into the NFL schedule to serve as a buffer for future outbreaks; this has a lot of moving parts that would involve pushing the trajectory of the playoffs and Super Bowl back a week, but it’s shortsighted to assume that the remainder of the season will go off without a hitch. Moreover, in the event of (inevitable) future outbreaks, this week would already pre-exist as a cushion. 

Should the NFL reschedule the game for after Week 17, this would give the relevant teams two “bye weeks” – something players have been clamoring for in the first place. While it might seem unfair to unaffected teams who would only have one bye, the reality is that this abnormal season is unprecedented and only has so many solutions that fit within 17 weeks. Here’s hoping this game of hypotheticals remains quite limited.

Madeleine also writes for Canal St. Chronicles/SB Nation. Madeleine got her masters degree in legal studies from Northeastern University.

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