After Bears players are cleared with three negative COVID-19 test results this week, they will enter Halas Hall for the first time this year.
But before they can dress at their socially distanced lockers each day for training camp, they will stop at a station to pick up a new piece of equipment that will be used during all team activities this summer.
The device is a proximity recorder made by Kinexon, a German company that operates its U.S. headquarters in the Chicago Loop. The system, called SafeZone, will assist NFL teams with physical distancing and contact tracing initiatives as they try to prevent the coronavirus from spreading through their facilities.
All team personnel will wear the lightweight SafeTag sensors on a wristband or lanyard within the facility and during team travel, and players will also have them in their jerseys during practices.
The devices are customizable and can flash or sound an alarm when players, coaches or staff get too close to one another. They also log a person’s contacts throughout the day — who they’re around, how close they come to one another and for how long. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, teams will have an immediately available list of that individual’s interactions within the team facility to determine others who need to take precautions.
“We all know that football and physical distance don’t go together as far as on-field activity,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “So we really want to dive in and have the most accurate information we can have about exposures on the field, but also off the field as well.”
Kinexon has German soccer and basketball leagues among its clients and also placed its SafeZone system within the NBA bubble in Florida. Mehdi Bentanfous, Kinexon’s CEO of North America, believes the devices are an important piece of efforts to keep companies and leagues running during the pandemic.
Kinexon, which was founded in Munich in 2012 and opened its Chicago office in 2016, already was in the business of tracking athletes before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The Bulls were among the NBA teams using its technology to track performance metrics based on positional and movement data, measuring distance, speed, acceleration and deceleration as well as workload, energy exertion and fatigue levels.
When the pandemic began to unfold, Kinexon executives immediately recognized how they could pivot their ultra-wideband radio frequency technology to help with physical distancing and contact tracing. Within 3 1/4 u00bd weeks, they were piloting their new system with clients, Bentanfous said. A few weeks later, they were able to roll it out on a grander scale, working with a variety of companies and industries beyond sports leagues.
Pricing for the system varies based on order size and delivery time, a Kinexon rep said. The company’s quick action put it in position to serve the NFL in its contact tracing needs on the scale it needed — 10,000 SafeTags, according to The Athletic.
The NFL already does a lot of tracking, including partnering with Zebra Technologies to log player and ball data during games to fuel its NextGen Stats operation. A limited number of teams last season wore mouth-guard sensors to measure hits to the head and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on their cleats to track lower-extremity injury data, Jennifer Langton, NFL senior vice president for health and safety innovation, said earlier this year.
So doing contact tracing for thousands of employees digitally was a natural step for the league.
“We knew we couldn’t do it manually at the level we would need to do it, and we began to look for innovative ways we could at least gather some data about how players were coming into contact with other players,” said Michelle McKenna, the NFL’s chief information officer. “A lot of fitness-type apps had pivoted to this and began to offer this type of data, but we really only found Kinexon that had something ready and in the market and at the number of devices we were going to need — because we’re putting it on all players and personnel and anyone that works in close proximity with our players.”
The SafeTag devices communicate with each other to log proximity and duration of interactions. Because of privacy concerns, they do not track specific movements, location or activities of the user, and the data is anonymized, Bentanfous said. Only specific people within an organization will know who was wearing which sensor.
The benefits start with physical distancing.
The league has asked teams to divide their employees into three tiers based on whether they need to have contact with players. Tier 1 includes people with direct contact with players, such as coaches, equipment managers and strength and medical staff. Tier 2 is people who are in close proximity to players and Tier 1 individuals, such as general managers and football operations and administration staff. And Tier 3 includes essential facility, stadium and event staff that do not require close contact with Tier 1 individuals, such as cleaning and maintenance providers and in-house media.
The SafeTag devices will sound an alarm when employees from Tier 3 — those with the most limited access — are too close to areas and people they’re not supposed to be, McKenna said. She said teams can also use the devices’ red warning lights to show when people from all tiers are within six feet of one another, a feature Kinexon studies indicated can help people adjust their actions.
“People are busy working and are focusing on other stuff, and having something reminding them of the six feet distance instantly helped a lot to change their behavior,” Bentanfous said.
McKenna believes teams can also use it to adjust working conditions. Bentanfous said Kinexon had a case in which teams within a league were complaining about too many alarms going off during meetings.
“The impact was they changed the setup in the room, how they were sitting and how they were interacting with each other, so that the physical distance was ensured and the beeping completely disappeared,” he said. “It’s helpful for the behavior of the people, but also for how a company or a team would define the processes and the structure of how they’re operating.”
If, however, COVID-19 does hit a facility, teams also have a way to track it.
Quick tracing measures
Among the benefits to the NFL season starting in mid-September is it can monitor how protocols work within other sports leagues before its games start. And league officials — along with the rest of the sports world — are undoubtedly studying the Miami Marlins’ coronavirus spread to at least 17 people and how it affects Major League Baseball.
Will the NFL’s contact tracing protocols help stop such a spread? It’s too soon to tell, but here’s how it is supposed to work.
The NFL is using third-party partner IQVIA, which already manages the league’s injury information, to collect the anonymized data of each person’s contacts throughout the day. If an individual tests positive for COVID-19 or develops coronavirus symptoms, IQVIA will notify a team’s Infection Control Officer based on the person’s recent contacts about who else needs to be tested.
Individuals who came into “close contact” with that person and remain asymptomatic would be tested and isolated until they get a negative test result. NFL protocols state that “close contact” includes living in the same household, being within six feet for about 10 minutes, being in direct contact with secretions from the person, making direct physical contact or sharing an object with a person during practice and handling uniforms or equipment of the individual.
Low-risk or medium-risk exposures will be monitored for symptoms but tested and screened per the usual protocol.
Teams hope to receive test results back within 24 hours. Sills noted testing will most certainly evolve throughout the season as companies create tests with more accurate results on quicker turnaround times.
“But even if those innovations do come into play, we’re going to remain very conservative around our approach of making sure we minimize risks for everyone,” Sills said. “Our goal is to make the safest possible environment for everyone in a team’s environment — players, coaches, staff — and as such we want to be really thoughtful and conservative medically to err on the side of caution.”
McKenna noted a limited group of NFL staff also will have access to teams’ anonymized data to make sure they are following the proper protocols. But there is one major complication to the NFL’s social distancing and contact tracing efforts with the Kinexon device.
On most days, the SafeTags are left at the doors of team facilities.
Making good decisions
The NFL will ask the players to wear the devices during team travel, but otherwise they won’t use them in the outside world. That means teams must rely on their employees — and those they associate with — to act responsibly when they’re not at work.
The league already has made efforts to educate players, coaches, staff and their families about COVID-19, putting together videos and slideshows detailing best practices to stay healthy.
“Those are not one-time conversations,” Sills said. “Those are dynamic conversations as new knowledge and new information appears. We believe education is key here because as people become more educated about this virus and about risk mitigation, then people are able to take more concrete action on their own and on behalf of themselves.
“Education is absolutely key and will continue to be so. That helps people make solid choices which impact their own risk and the risk of those around them.”
If education doesn’t make players think twice, perhaps the threat of punishment will.
The NFL sent out a memo last week detailing activities it considers high risk, including attending night clubs, bars, house parties, concerts or professional sporting events with more than 15 people and religious services at more than 25% capacity. Teams can discipline players who engage in such activities, and if a player tests positive for COVID-19 after such actions, a team could challenge whether that player should be put on the football-related injury list, potentially putting his pay in jeopardy.
As the Bears prepare to kick off training camp, it will be on coach Matt Nagy and Infection Control Officer Andre Tucker to impress upon players, coaches and staff the importance of safe practices.
After all, the Kinexon device can’t make decisions for people. It can just help them make better ones.
“Make no mistake: Contact tracing is hard,” Sills said. “It’s difficult to do for anyone because these are complex situations you have to account for. But I feel a high degree of confidence that we have an innovative technology combined with a very talented and motivated group of people that are going to work very diligently on this.”
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