CHICAGO — Testing, testing. 1-2-3. Testing.
Welcome to NFL training camps in 2020.
In this new pandemic-restricted world, all 32 teams are rapidly adapting to increase the safety of their work environments and prevent a spread of COVID-19 from significantly disrupting the season.
“We know this is going to be challenging,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “And we’ve said it won’t be easy. But I also remain cautiously optimistic about moving forward into this season.”
Away we go.
Much of this, of course, starts with testing.
COVID-19 testing will be the first task on the to-do list for every player reporting to camp this week. For the Bears, whose official reporting date to Halas Hall was Tuesday, every player will take three coronavirus entry tests over a four-day span. If — and only if — all three nasal swab tests come back negative will players be permitted inside the building for physical examinations and equipment pickup.
From there? With protocols established by the NFL and the NFLPA under advisement from their joint coronavirus medical task force, players, coaches and additional team personnel will continue to undergo COVID-19 testing daily, a process that will shift to every-other-day testing only after a team has established a positivity rate of less than 5% at its facility.
Got all that?
That’s just Step 1, a long way from holding an actual padded practice. Which is a long way from a safe and smooth start to actual games in September. Which is a long way from navigating through the entire regular season, into the playoffs and onward toward Super Bowl LV without interruption.
There are no guarantees the NFL can make its way to the end of this complex maze without a few detours or full stops over the next six months.
Across the league, positive COVID-19 tests are already springing up as expected, triggering troubleshooting efforts and treatment procedures as guided by the policies the NFL and NFLPA recently agreed on.
On Monday, 18 more players were placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list, an indication they either tested positive for the coronavirus or were in close contact with a carrier. That list included Bears rookie running back Artavis Pierce.
The NFL is counting on its detailed testing setup as a key piece in this puzzle to get everything started on the right foot.
After comprehensive planning sessions, the NFL partnered with BioReference Laboratories Inc., a New Jersey-based commercial laboratory that will administer COVID-19 tests for all 32 teams, handle sample collection and process the results in rapid fashion. Each team will have a testing site on location, in most cases a trailer set up in the parking lot.
The NFL’s testing protocols call for “expedited result reporting” in less than 24 hours. The league has also highlighted BioReference Laboratories’ testing reliability, expecting the rate of false positive and false negative tests to remain less than 5%.
Sills said the NFL was intent on partnering with a national vendor for testing and reached out to more than 60 test providers before uniting with BioReference. The league first wanted to be certain its testing efforts didn’t have an adverse effect on society at large.
“We wanted to make sure that whatever testing we set up did not in any way hinder the test supply, capacity or performance for the health care system,” Sills said. “We said from day one that that was an incredibly important goal to us. … We didn’t want our clubs having to go to health care facilities in their own markets and in any way compete for or take away testing resources.”
The league’s testing procedures ideally will work in a way that helps teams quickly identify individuals who have tested positive, then isolate and treat them accordingly. Contact tracing remains another key component in the strategy, and the league has mandated that all players and coaches wear Kinexon Proximity Recording devices while at team facilities to help identify whom they were in close contact with in the event they test positive for COVID-19.
These measures are a start. But the safeguarding of facilities will be so much more involved.
“In many ways people tend to overvalue the relative contribution of testing. We cannot test our way to safety,” Sills said. “No matter how often we test or who we test, testing is always going to have some limitations. That’s why it’s important to add in other layers of protection.”
Sills continues to emphasize the need for mask use and physical distancing. Teams have also been directed to strategize the layout of their facilities and been reminded of the need for constant disinfection and sterilization of most work areas and touch zones.
To that end, Sills said, there has been a heartening level of collaboration and information sharing across the league.
“Everyone is sharing best practices together,” he said. “This isn’t a competitive advantage thing where one club is coming upon a better way of doing something that then puts them in a better position than another club. Our teams are incredibly competitive on the field of play. But when it comes to health and safety, they’re incredibly collaborative. And we have seen that evidenced through this work more at this time as any other time than I can recall.”
The Bears declined the Chicago Tribune’s request to speak with their designated Infection Control Officer, Andre Tucker, or anyone else on their medical staff or in the front office for details on how the organization has made adjustments to team facilities to operate under the current conditions. The team also declined to share where its COVID-19 testing will take place or where test samples will be sent to be ensure quick results.
Last week in Minnesota, in a concerted effort to detail all of the measures the Vikings are taking to safeguard their TCO Performance Center facilities, head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman gave reporters a 25-minute PowerPoint presentation on the changes and new wrinkles at team headquarters.
Sugarman, who has also been appointed as the team’s Infection Control Officer for this season, then took questions for 15 minutes, describing myriad changes to how the Vikings will function for meetings and meals; how foot traffic inside the building will be restricted and redirected; how sanitization of just about everything has become far more intense.
The Vikings’ auditorium, for example, a 174-seat space once used frequently for full team meetings, now has only 42 usable seats to allow for proper distancing.
In-person classroom film study is being discouraged, with players instead urged to tend to such homework on their tablets.
The days of self-serve food lines in the cafeteria are over for now too. To adjust, the Vikings are making grab-and-go food options more readily available while also setting up an app that allows players to pre-order meals to pick up and take elsewhere.
Face coverings are required at all times indoors. Hand sanitizer stations are now everywhere in the building.
“You can’t go more than 30 seconds without bumping into one of these,” Sugarman said.
All of these modifications, Sugarman acknowledged, will take some getting used to.
“We know that the first few weeks are going to be some of the toughest weeks we’ve had,” he said. “Because they are going to be critical toward establishing what we’ll refer to as our ‘new normal.’
Sugarman also stressed the importance of educating players, coaches and all team employees about the gravity of this situation, about the dangers of COVID-19 and the ways to avoid unnecessary risks.
“This virus is not political,” Sugarman said. “It doesn’t care about your political affiliation. It doesn’t care about the color of your skin. It doesn’t care about what religion you are. It doesn’t know. So it’s not biased.
“We talk (a lot) about the players. And the players are essential to playing football. But I think about myself and my family. I think about my wife and my two kids that I go home to each and every day as well. And we all have to think along those lines. We have a different, more impactful responsibility to make sure we do the right things to keep this virus outside of this building to the best of our ability.”
On Monday, in an unsettling twist, the Vikings announced Sugarman and members of his family had tested positive for COVID-19. At present, Sugarman said, he and his family are experiencing only mild symptoms. But they are all in self-quarantine.
The timeline for Sugarman’s return to help oversee the Vikings’ efforts to manage COVID-19 remains indefinite. It’s one case that highlights the difficulty the entire league may soon face along the steep climb to get football back up and running at a functional level.
“I have an immense amount of pride in the effort I have personally put forth to protect the NFL family, the Minnesota Vikings organization and our community with thoughtfulness and decision making based on the current science over these last four months,” Sugarman said in a statement. “I am humble to be serving in that capacity as it has been some of the most rewarding work of my career. But as I sit here in quarantine, it is clear this virus does not discriminate. It should continue to be taken seriously.”
Since the spring, the NFL has been forward in acknowledging that attempts to fully prevent the coronavirus from penetrating the league would be futile. The key, the league has stressed, lies in establishing a system equipped to successfully manage and control new COVID-19 cases as they arise.
The NFL has detailed for teams the specific steps to take when an individual has symptoms and tests positive; when an individual is asymptomatic and tests positive; and when an individual has close contact with another individual who has COVID-19 symptoms or who has tested positive.
Sills has been energized by the amount of deep thought and planning that has gone into the NFL’s efforts to set itself up for success. With constant input from medical experts, public health officials and authorities within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Sills is confident the league has prepared itself properly while knowing there will be unforeseen twists.
The NFL has also spent significant time studying other sports leagues in the United States and around the world, talking with authorities in those leagues to glean additional insight and advice. Sills is hopeful everyone within the NFL will remain united in what he called an “extremely committed ecosystem.”
“I believe we have a unique opportunity to show how we can attempt to deal with this virus and co-exist with it at the same time while still trying to pursue some of the activities that everyone enjoys,” Sills said. “The learning we take away from that is going to be important, not just for the NFL or professional sports but important for society as a whole.”
It won’t be easy. Hazards exist. With a message that turned out to be prescient, Sugarman addressed the NFL’s reality last week.
“Listen,” he said, “we’re going to have people who get COVID. It’s unavoidable. We are a microcosm of society. And as we know, in society worldwide, there have been 14 million cases that have been documented. In the United States we’re nearing 4 million cases that have been documented. So again, as a microcosm of society, we’re going to have people who get COVID. And we have to be able to manage it.”
The process for doing so begins now as the league makes every effort to get into training camps and get through the season.
Said Sills: “All of us share the same concern about the unpredictable nature of this virus. Clearly this is a very different virus than many of the other sort of epidemics that we’ve seen. We’re still early in our stage of learning.
“I know that for most of us it feels like this pandemic has lasted for years already. You think about these past few months. But in medical terms, a few months is actually a very short period of time, so there’s a lot more to be learned. The key for us is going to be remaining flexible and adaptable and recognizing that we’ll have to evaluate our plans at each step along the way.”