NFL’s new COVID-19 return-to-play protocols by DJ Hamilton


    The NFL and NFL Players Association have negotiated changes to the league’s COVID-19 protocols after a massive wave of positive cases have not only taken over the NFL, but the NBA and NHL as well. Effective immediately, all 32 NFL teams will be placed in intensive COVID-19 protocols until the conclusion of Week 15. This means the reemphasis of mandatory mask wearing in team facilities, social distancing, grab-and-go meal service in team cafeterias, all-virtual meetings, limits on the number of people allowed in weight rooms and restrictions on activities outside the facility. 

Teams that have had major outbreaks recently include the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns who both had key players out due to positive COVID tests. Teams already in intensive protocols due to ongoing outbreaks will continue daily testing of all players and personnel whether they are vaccinated or not, but the rest of the teams won't be subject to daily testing. This comes at a scary time as there is now a new variant called the Omicron where the first professional player to get tested positive for it was in the NBA earlier this week.

Under the previous protocols, a vaccinated individual who tested positive for COVID had to produce two negative tests 24 hours apart before being cleared to return to action. The new protocols would not emphasize that requirement which could make life easier for the Browns, Rams, and the Washington Football Team who have been ravaged by positive tests.

In creating the new return-to-play protocols, the NFL and NFLPA focused on a new metric that measures the viral load of a player, known as the "cycle threshold" (CT). In essence, the CT value will measure whether a player is still contagious, even if in some cases he would still test positive on a traditional test. Testing can begin immediately one day after the initial positive and could significantly shorten the amount of time a vaccinated player spends away from the team facility.

There are now three ways for a vaccinated player to return under the new protocols:

• Two PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that are either negative or produce a CT value of 35 or greater.

• One PCR test that is either negative or produces a CT value of 35 or greater, and a negative Mesa test result taken within 24 hours of the PCR test. (Mesa tests usually return results in less than an hour.)

• Two negative Mesa tests.

Despite the changes, unvaccinated players will still have to be tested daily and must stay away from the team facility for at least 10 days before they can be cleared to return after a positive test. 

The league said in a statement on Thursday, "Throughout the pandemic we have continuously evolved our protocols to meet our goal of advancing the safety of the players, coaches and staff. The changes we are making today aim to address the increase in cases and the advent of the Omicron variant. Effective immediately, all clubs will implement preventative measures that have proven effective: masking regardless of vaccination status, remote or outdoor meetings, eliminating in-person meals, and no outside visitors while on team travel. We will continue to strongly encourage booster shots as the most effective protection.”

“Finally, and based on expert advice, we will adjust the return-to-participation requirements for those who have recovered from COVID-19. All of these changes are grounded in our data and science-backed approach, with safety our number-one goal for the entire NFL community." 

Let’s hope the NFL is right in their judgment, as this can either make or break the way how the rest of the season goes with the playoffs in the not-too-distant future.