The NFL has its first COVID-19 outbreak.

The Tennessee Titans identified a COVID-19 outbreak that involved three members of the team and five team staff. The team announced that it closed its training facilities until this Saturday as part of the NFL COVID-19 program.

The Titans played the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on Sunday, and the Vikings now are planning on closing their facilities as well, although they did not identify any positive players or coaches. 

There was no testing of players on Sunday after the game. All Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees from the Titans and Vikings, which include players and coaches, were tested Monday morning. That’s when the eight positives were identified in the Titans, but none in the Vikings.

The Titans have had prior evidence of COVID-19 infections in both a player, offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson, and their defensive coach Shane Bowen who was identified as COVID-19 positive before the team left for Minneapolis. So it is likely the infection occurred at the Titans facilities last week, although it is still possible the Vikings were infected during the game and have not yet shown viral shedding (positive tests).

Also, the Titans stayed Saturday night at the JW Marriott, adjacent to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, according to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin. League protocol requires all members of the traveling party to have their own rooms and also prohibits them from “congregating, visiting or mingling with individuals outside of the Traveling Party once they have arrived in the game city.”

According to the NFL protocol, all players who test positive for COVID-19 and remain asymptomatic can return 10 days after the test or after five days with two consecutive negative tests within a five-day period. Those who show symptoms can return 10 days after the symptoms first appear and 72 hours have passed since any symptoms have ended. All players who test positive must also be cleared by the team’s physician and undergo cardiac testing.   

The NFL Protocol for handling COVID-19 positive individuals.

In some ways it’s not surprising that the NFL has had an outbreak. Major League Baseball, the other sports league that had travel associated with competition, also had a significant number of outbreaks among teams. Remarkably, as the season went on MLB appeared to get better at controlling outbreaks although there were no specific announcements as to changes in protocol or lessons learned that resulted in this improvement. 

In contrast, both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League compete under quarantine and have not had any major outbreaks among their teams.

The real issue is what the NFL will do moving forward. It’s not clear whether the Titans’ game with the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in Nashville will happen. Also, since no players on the Vikings have shown infection, one wonders if they will play the Houston Texans as scheduled this Sunday. 

The NFL has been very aggressive in having coaches and referees wear protective masks and social distance. The players do not have those options and would appear to be at greater risk. It also is unclear whether the type of contact that would occur during a game would be effective in spreading and transmitting COVID-19 given the fact that it is outdoors. Despite this, the players would be exhaling hard and could create aerosols that potentially could transmit the disease infection.

Is the NFL willing to postpone games? Will they be willing to delay the playoffs to make up these contests? What happens if the outbreaks become widespread among teams? Someone in the commissioner’s office probably has their head spinning with these questions, but a lot will be determined by whether any Vikings were infected during the game. This will be something of an unintended experiment.

Published by jbakerjrblog

Immunologist, former Army MD, former head of allergy and clinical immunology at University of Michigan, vaccine developer and opinionated guy.

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