NEW YORK – When the reigning league MVP and several other key players enter the NFL's COVID-19 protocols, it clouds the numbers that indicate significant progress made in protection against the coronavirus.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers went into the protocol last week, missing a headline matchup with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. So did Giants running back Saquon Barkley. Other key players sitting out at times this season include Packers receiver Davante Adams, a 2020 All-Pro; Vikings standout safety Harrison Smith; and Bucs wideout Antonio Brown.
Coaches all must be vaccinated under league guidelines, but Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury and Chicago's Matt Nagy have been idled for games because of COVID-19 protocols.
Compared to a year ago, when 18 games were either postponed or moved due to COVID-19 breakouts or restrictions, 2021 has gone relatively well. Although several teams have gone to enhanced protocols at their facilities, the schedule has not been interrupted halfway through.
“We’re still learning a lot, every week we continue to look at our data, just as we did last year, and adjust our protocols,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer. “We continue to have regular conversations with the CDC, the FDA, other public health officials, and infectious disease experts around the country.”
While praising the rate of vaccination among players (above 94%), Sills added:
“We still don’t see any evidence of outdoor, on-field spread of COVID, which I think is important. And definitely we’re seeing that vaccinated individuals have milder disease: shorter duration, fewer symptoms overall. So, those are positive trends.”
Sills also noted during the owners meetings late last month that symptom reporting has been a key to avoiding outbreaks and will remain a focus throughout the rest of the season.
“We’ve seen that in some of our case clusters that people who are vaccinated don’t often recognize the symptoms of COVID illness because they’re different than what we saw last year,” he said. "So we’ve really been emphasizing, to borrow a phrase from the TSA, that ‘if you feel something, say something’ because we think it’s important for people to speak up and get tested.
“I do think that .... we are definitely seeing the impact of vaccines. We’re seeing that impact in the number of cases that we have, we’re not seeing the clustering of cases that we saw last year. We’re not seeing the uncontrolled spread.”
A prime example of that occurred in October with the Arizona Cardinals, forcing Kingsbury to miss a game. Data showed through genetic sequencing that of the first seven cases in that cluster, five were different strains of the virus. That indicated rather than a spread within the team facility and person to person, exposure came outside the facility.
“So again, I think we’re seeing substantial effect in a beneficial way of the vaccines,” Sills said. “Had we had that kind of exposure last year when no one was protected, I think we would have had a very, very different outcome.”
What's ahead as the league continually evaluates its protocols while it attempts to complete a second consecutive schedule without losing a game to COVID-19?
“I think right now I would say we’re pleased with where we are, but it’s not a point where we would want to take our foot off the gas pedal,” Sills said. “We certainly still see, as we’ve seen I mentioned before with the Arizona situation, high rates of community exposure. So I think we have to continue to be vigilant, but we’ll certainly look at the data and not only think about pulling back, but see where the protocol can become more effective.
"You know, what are the parts of it that really keep us safe, what are the parts that prevent transmission, and how can we adapt as we see new knowledge come out? ”
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