Saturday, December 18, 2021

NFL Grapples With Covid Outbreaks and Postponed Games

Yeah, one of those postponed is Seahawks at Rams, to which I've got tickets. 

It's not too easy organizing a game day at the stadium for the weekend before Christmas. For one thing, this last week was finals week. My oldest still has a term paper to get done by Monday and I gave my last final yesterday. Now I've got a bit more grading to do, then I'm done.

But no, the NFL has to implement protocols and yesterday 29 PLAYERS were listed on the covid inacatives, including Odell Beckham Jr., man!

The game's now Tuesday at 4:00pm, and he's expected to play, but what a pain, sheesh.

At WSJ, "The NFL Pivots to Less Covid Testing—Not More—to Thwart Disruptions":

The NFL eliminated weekly Covid-19 testing for vaccinated players who are asymptomatic, according to new protocols agreed upon by the league and the players’ union, a move that reverses its past pandemic practice in a bid to keep players from being sidelined while not feeling sick.

The idea of decreasing, not increasing, testing arose as the league suffered through a brutal round of Covid outbreaks. More than 100 players tested positive this week, and the league on Friday postponed three games, to Monday and Tuesday, hoping that decimated team rosters can be stabilized.

“We’re entering a very different phase of this pandemic and in some way battling a very new disease,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said after the new rules were agreed upon. “We’re trying to test smarter and test in a more strategic fashion.”

The move away from testing is a high-profile and potentially divisive shift for the NFL. Earlier in the pandemic, it was envied for testing employees daily in order to keep playing. It now risks a new wrath by reducing its testing to continue playing in the era of vaccines.

Yet as the rapid spread of the Omicron variant takes hold, it could provide a more nuanced option for life going ahead that acknowledges the public’s waning appetite for lengthy quarantines and cancellations at a time when most people have the option of protecting themselves from illness with shots.

“We can’t apply 2020 solutions to the 2021 problems that we’re having,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said earlier in the week. “We’re often at the tip of the spear in seeing some of these changes before they show up in other elements of society because we do have so many tools at our disposal.”

Under the new protocols, unvaccinated players are still tested daily and anyone who is symptomatic is subject to a test, with players and staff now subject to “enhanced symptom screening.” Vaccinated players will also be subject to targeted spot testing and could be made to take a test if they are deemed a high-risk contact of someone who is positive.

The agreement between the NFL and NFL Players association also paved the way for players to opt out of the rest of the season, with just a few weeks and the playoffs remaining. Players deemed higher risk, based on a number of medical factors, have until Monday to opt out and they would not be paid for the remainder of the season.

The NFL’s possible move raises the question of whether it could be an acceptable compromise to let fully vaccinated asymptomatic people play or party on—as long as it’s only with other fully vaccinated people who face low risks from the virus. . In a league where almost 95% of players and 100% of staff are vaccinated, the problem isn’t individuals getting sick. It’s players getting removed from action when they test positive despite feeling completely healthy.

Sills noted that while the Omicron variant has rapidly spread, the league is also seeing more cases with little-to-no symptoms. Two-thirds of the players who have tested positive this week are asymptomatic, Sills said. The other third, he said, are suffering very mild symptoms.

Yet under the current protocols, all individuals who test positive have to isolate.

That has led the league to wonder: Is it over-testing? The question has been at the heart of negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association this week as the surge in Covid-19 cases rocked both the country and the sport.

The league took a small step in that direction on Thursday when it announced that some fully vaccinated players who tested positive, but had relatively little virus in their samples, would be allowed back onto the field. The thinking is that their positive test didn’t necessarily mean they were infectious, and that the risk they posed to other vaccinated players was very low. Ignoring the possibility of positive tests altogether would be an extension of that thinking.

It’s an idea that drew support from George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco​—who emphasized that his backing was contingent on near-100% boosted vaccination rates.

“If everybody’s fully vaccinated [including a booster], I could certainly understand how you could get away without testing,” he said. “I think you might be able to tolerate a slightly less aggressive disease control approach.”

A significant concern with this strategy may be treating individuals who have not received a booster shot the same as those who have. Early research into Omicron has also shown that people who aren’t boosted have a lower level of protection against the new variant.

The NFL’s own antibody study on staff members showed the waning immunity from the standard shot regimen while also showing that antibody levels were far higher—and lasted longer—in people who have gotten boosted. A recent memo from the league also required eligible staff to get booster shots, though it stopped short of requiring that for players.

“Boosters are the best way to restore that immunity,” Sills said Saturday.

The same question has reverberated around other sports leagues. A surge of cases across the NBA compelled the league to update its testing protocols for the two weeks after Christmas. Under the new guidance, boosted players aren’t subject to the daily testing required of fully vaccinated players, though there may be exceptions for teams battling potential outbreaks.

The idea for scaling back testing has met some pushback. Before the season—and before Covid-19 was raging inside locker rooms—the NFLPA had pushed for daily testing. That’s why the discussions between the league and its union have ranged from increasing testing to doing it in a more targeted manner.

Daily testing was a critical tool as the NFL navigated its first pandemic season in 2020. It allowed the league to quickly remove positive personnel and—along with various social distancing, masking and contact tracing measures—thwart the spread of the virus inside clubs.

That changed in 2021 to account for the widespread availability of safe vaccines that large clinical trials showed were effective at preventing serious illness due to the virus. Under the current rules, the small number of unvaccinated players are tested daily while vaccinated players are tested once a week, though that can increase in outbreak scenarios.

The new testing cadence wasn’t problematic as the league coasted through most of its season. That changed this week when the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns and Washington Football team experienced outbreaks that led to the first game postponements of the season...