By Amanda Sealy, CNN
As the NFL’s 2021 season kicked off with the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Dallas Cowboys, the league had managed to vaccinate more than 90% of its players and staff against the coronavirus.
It already had an entire pandemic season under its belt and knew what protocols could help keep Covid-19 at bay — but then Omicron hit. The league was forced to postpone three games and had to rethink its entire Covid-19 strategy.
“Things that we had thought that we really understood all of a sudden turned upside down overnight,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
At the end of last season, Sills said, the most common places where transmission happened were while meeting, eating or greeting. But the latest variant changed things.
“I think what was different with Omicron is, it is just so much easier to transmit. One of my colleagues in infectious disease described Omicron almost like fog that just settled over everybody. And so it really touched everybody and exposed almost everybody. And even if you really were careful and took a lot of precautions, it was almost impossible to avoid being exposed.”
Search for symptoms
As Omicron started to take over across the United States, the NFL saw its cases rise as well, going from an average of fewer than 30 cases a week to more than 300, out of 8,000 people, in a matter of weeks.
Memo after memo was sent around the league to update its Covid-19 protocols. Nine changes were implemented during the season. Besides going back to the basics with masks and physical distancing, boosters became mandatory for staff, though not players.
Perhaps most notably, a distinct change was made to the testing protocol.
“What we really had to do with Omicron is get more targeted,” said Sills.
Previously, vaccinated players were tested periodically, and unvaccinated players were tested daily.
Now, Sills wants to target anyone with symptoms.
“We adjusted our testing and said, ‘You know what, rather than just randomly sampling people at certain preset time intervals, we’re going to home in on symptomatic testing. Because we think that’s where we’re going to identify the cases that we’re concerned about.’ “
One of the trickier aspects of this virus is its ability to infect someone without causing symptoms. But Sills noted that “for decades, we’ve said when people develop symptoms, we think that’s when they represent their peak of infectiousness.”
Sills says the changes are working. Not only are players and staff closely monitored, they’re not hesitating to report when they have symptoms.
He says that in some ways, it’s actually made this testing strategy more effective.
“Let’s just say we were testing someone on a Monday. They test Monday. They test negative. And then on Wednesday, they start to have some symptoms. And they think, ‘well, it must not be Covid, because I just tested negative,’ ” Sills said.
“When we switch to the symptom-based testing, people right away recognize, ‘OK, I have one of the symptoms I’ve heard about. I need to go ahead and get tested.’ So I think it allowed us to quickly identify cases, which is what we wanted to do.”
Vaccines are the key
However, the NFL’s success with these updated protocols has a lot to do with one thing: vaccines.
Only about two-thirds of the country is fully vaccinated, but the NFL says 95% of its players and almost 100% of its staff is fully vaccinated.
“Being heavily vaccinated was an important part of how we were able to successfully get through the season, keep people safe and still pursue what we wanted to do,” Sills says.
The league has had some high-profile cases of players not getting vaccinated — perhaps most notably, quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers — but Sills says the protocols are not meant to be punitive against anyone who is unvaccinated. The approach has been about offering education to players and staff about the benefits of vaccinations and boosters.
“In our data set, it’s very clear those who were vaccinated were more protected.”
Sills says the league will continue to follow the data when it comes to its Covid-19 protocols, but leading up to the Super Bowl, he feels confident that the country can learn from the NFL when it comes to how to navigate this virus.
“I think sometimes, we get into this very binary thinking that it’s ‘shut everything down or act like nothing’s going on.’ And there is truly a middle ground to be had. I think that’s important.”
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