Wearing masks and practicing social distancing appears to be the most effective line of defense in preventing the spread of the virus.
Football is the least socially distant sport there is. Between 10-15 players line up in the “box” around the line of scrimmage. Offensive and defensive lineman engage in hand to hand combat on every play. Piles of players form regularly around the ball.
“In football, players are in closer proximity than some other sports, but we rely heavily and lean heavily on our testing, on our symptom reporting and the environment we have created for our players to mitigate that risk as much as possible,” Dr. James Voos of University Hospitals and head Browns physician said on a video conference call with reporters Wednesday.
It still begs the question; can the NFL compete safely this season?
“We certainly want to remain cautiously optimistic,” Dr. Voos said. “Again, there are no guarantees in how this virus is going to behave. What we do want to do is assure that we have set up the safest environment possible for the players, both in the physical environment with the education of the players and with testing, and then with that collaboration of other NFL teams and other professional football teams.”
While major League Soccer, the NBA and NHL have had tremendous success and recently reported zero new positive COVID-19 tests, the outbreak involving the Miami Marlins raises red flags for football.
Unlike the NHL, MLS and NBA, who are using a bubble, Major League Baseball is not.
Neither will the NFL.
“We feel like we have positioned ourselves using the best available treatments and best available evidence we have to keep our players safe,” Dr. Voos said. “Again, certainly this is a very fluid process that we will have to monitor on a regular basis, but our goal is to have a safe, healthy season for the players. We will take this week by week, day by day to assure we are providing the best environment possible.”
In the NFL’s defense, placing 32 teams with rosters of 80 players, 20 or so coaches, plus support staffs in a bubble is nearly impossible to do.
The next best thing is education, volume testing, tracing and prevention.
Players are tested three times in four days before being allowed to even enter the training facility. Daily testing continues for two weeks then regular testing follows.
They are also receiving virtual training on safety protocols they should follow including protecting themselves away from the facility by avoiding bars and clubs, washing their hands and using hand sanitizer regularly as well as wearing masks.
“Certainly, when players are first coming to the facility or first coming in, the start of camp is the most critical time,” Dr. Voos said. “That is why we have executed such frequent testing, and this is daily testing for this first several weeks. The typical incubation time is approximately 14 days and can vary a bit on either side so we are testing every day leading up to that, those daily symptoms screenings and offering the players the antibody test allow us, particularly here at the beginning of camp as we are all converging back together, to assure that we capture the incubation period.
“I think the protocols have been put in place to capture that initial highest-risk period as we get things going.”
Players and coaches will wear Kinexon proximity tracking devices while in the facility which will enable the team and medical staff to ensure protocols are being followed and give them the ability to do effective contact tracing should someone test positive.
So, what happens if a player does test positive?
“The first part of that is we want to assure the well-being of the player, that they are evaluated and that they are safe, whether they can be at home or whether they need to be evaluated in a healthcare setting,” Dr. Voos said. “First and foremost is to get that player out of the facility and into an area where he can safely quarantine. No. 1 is removal from the environment and making sure they are in a safe quarantine space for both the team and their family. Then, there is a series of tests. We have employed both wearable technology and digital assets to allow us to monitor symptoms, monitor vital signs and then start the contact tracing process.
“Once the player has undergone the appropriate time of quarantine and is symptom-free, there are a series and tests and screens that the player undergoes to assure that they are healthy to return to play and that their testing is negative before entering the building so that they can both protect themselves, as well as their teammates when they return.”