The NFL’s COVID-19 testing has produced false negatives, false positives and maybe, most dangerously, a false sense of security.
Wednesday was the most faith-shaking day since training camps opened in late July: Two more positive tests within the Titans upped their total to 11 in the past 10 days, kept their facility shuttered and increased odds of a second straight postponed game. A second Patriots superstar tested positive in a four-day span. And the Raiders became the fifth team with a positive result over two weeks.
For the first time since the NFL started releasing numbers that seemed almost too encouraging to be true — seven player infections from Aug. 12-Sept. 19 — it was again fair to ask: Should the season be paused? Is it even possible to reach the finish line?
Anthony Santella, a Ph.D and public health scientist who teaches at Hofstra, thinks the NFL’s return in a non-bubble format was “too premature,” so frequent testing isn’t enough to offset travel exposures and off-field risks.
“I know it’s people’s passion, it’s a business, it’s something to distract people from the multiple issues going on in the world, but we’re just not there yet,” Santella said. “I think you are going to see [play] starting and stopping, starting and stopping.”
Why now and not at the beginning?
“We’re entering the peak period of the year of respiratory illnesses,” Santella said, “and we’ve never experienced what we are about to have happen: The intersection of probably a mutating COVID virus with new strains of the flu. Add on COVID fatigue — people are tired of following instructions and being kept in their homes — and that’s a bad combination.”
The league reportedly is investigating the Titans for possible protocol violations, including players gathering for an explicitly off-limits informal workout last week and not wearing masks inside team headquarters. The Raiders were fined for mask-less players at a charity event, but one theory is Titans’ discipline could include an unprecedented forfeit if they can’t play the Bills on Sunday.
As is the case with anything in sports, star power rules. And the Patriots now have reigning defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore sidelined by a positive test, as well as former MVP quarterback Cam Newton.
“Perhaps this is a learning curve that some people need a little bit more direction or restriction, like a bubble versus traveling from city to city,” said Dr. Joseph Kim, an infectious disease specialist at ID Care in Morristown, N.J. “It’s realistic to encounter positives, and the virus doesn’t care if you are a starter or a reserve. Early numbers can lead to a small degree of complacency.”
There were two confirmed positives among players and four more among other team personnel on 36,666 daily tests administered from Sept. 20-26, according to the NFL. Those numbers spiked to 11 and 15, respectively, on 37,002 tests from Sept. 27-Oct. 3. In total, there were 84 confirmed positives (including 31 players) on more than 370,000 tests from Aug. 1-Oct. 3.
“The virus is still very much a threat not only to our season, but to the safety of everyone in our community,” NFL Players Association Medical Director Dr. Thom Mayer said in a statement.
Newly tightened COVID-19 protocols require teams to maintain copies of surveillance camera footage inside facilities and on practice areas for league review of mask usage and to develop a schedule that limits time in the locker room and promotes physical distancing. The entry protocol for added players was increased from three to six days.
One encouraging sign is the virus does not appear to have been transmitted from one team to its opponent within a game via asymptomatic cases later identified.
“The fact that you are not seeing it cross the line of scrimmage is reassuring, as far as transmission,” Kim said. “If you saw a lineman has it and all of a sudden the guy to his left and right plus the guy in front get it, then that would pose a huge risk. It seems to be me more of who you are hanging around with and the types of decisions you are making rather than the activity of the team.”