The NFL announced several major changes to its COVID-19 protocols Thursday, in the middle of a week where around 100 players tested positive from Monday through Wednesday (and in a week where COVID and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in particular has impacted numerous sports). Those changes involve a return back to the strictest protocols from 2020, which were implemented before vaccines became widely available; now, even vaccinated players must wear masks in facilities, have to eat at least 10 feet apart from each other, can’t go out to eat on the road, can’t receive visitors at their hotels, and more. But they also involve dramatic changes to how quickly asymptomatic players can return from quarantine following repeated negative tests. Here’s more on that from the memo:
After evaluating our testing data, we have updated Addendum D to the Screening and Testing Protocol and the testing required for a fully vaccinated player, Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 staff member to “test out” of quarantine following a confirmed positive test. Effective immediately, any such fully vaccinated individual should be tested every day after the confirmed positive test. Any such fully vaccinated individual shall be released from quarantine, provided they are asymptomatic for at least 24 hours by one of the following options:
Option 1: S/he receives two (2) BRL PCR Test Results (taken on the day after the positive swab is taken (Day 1) or thereafter) (which may be taken concurrently) which are either negative or produce Cycle Threshold (CT) values of 35 or greater (all CT target levels (T1and T2) must be 35 or greater); OR
Option 2: S/he receives one (1) BRL PCR Test Result (taken on the day after the positive swab was taken (Day 1) or thereafter) which is either negative or produces CT values of 35 or greater (all CT target levels (T1 and T2) must be 35 or greater) AND a negative Mesa Test result from a test taken within 24 hours of the BRL PCR Test (i.e., both may be taken at the same time or less than 24 hours apart); OR
Option 3: S/he receives two (2) negative Mesa Test results (which may be taken concurrently but must be two (2) separate swabs) on Day 1 (the day after the positive swab was taken) or thereafter (maximum limit of 3 tests may be taken per day).
There seems to be some logic to these changes. The numbers of players testing positive this week certainly suggests some issues with the current protocols in handling the more-transmissible Omicron variant, and a return to some of the protocols that (largely) worked in pre-vaccination times may help dial that down. At the same time, though, the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing serious outcomes even from this variant does make a case for asymptomatic, vaccinated players being able to return more quickly than before following consecutive negative tests. And continuing with the existing protocols with these numbers of players testing positive seemed incredibly likely to lead to either cancelled/postponed games or games played with very limited rosters, and the league is obviously looking to avoid that.
However, one big question here is how much of this return-to-play change is actually safe and how much is about making sure those games go on. Players like Baker Mayfield have already bashed the league’s approach, and while the NFLPA as a whole signed off on this shift, there are likely to be other dissenting voices that show up. There also may be some questions coming about if there will be any changes for those watching games, from tighter vaccine/negative test and/or mask requirements to even fewer to no fans at games. But any of that would have a negative impact on the bottom line, and there are many skeptical of the league’s willingness to go near that.