NFL's Top Doctor On How Football Plans To Return

Aug 5, 2020
Originally published on August 5, 2020 10:36 am

American football is famous for being a full-contact sport. That presents a challenge for trying to keep the coronavirus at bay.

But the NFL is going for it, with some changes.

The league started daily testing for the first two weeks of training camp, which began for all players on July 28. Testing frequency is set to change based on the positivity rate after that.

"We expect to have positive cases," says NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills. "No matter how careful that we try to be and how many protocols we have in place, we know that this disease remains endemic in our societies and our communities and it's highly contagious."

More than 80 players have reportedly been put on the NFL COVID-19 list, which means they have tested positive or come into contact with someone who has. Dozens of players are opting out of the season altogether.

Full-contact training is set to begin Aug. 17, and the regular season is scheduled to start on Sept. 10.

"We're all going to have to try to learn to live with this virus in a sense, because we don't think it's going away anytime soon," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin on Morning Edition.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

Let me press you on some of the specific changes. We're talking [about] dozens of teams around the country. Presumably they're going to travel still. We're also talking about a high-contact sport.

We always say that the game of football and physical distance do not go together, that's for sure. But realize that the three hours of the game time represents a small fraction of the overall week of the team being together. So I think part of how we address that is trying to make sure that everyone who gets to the field is not infected, and we do that, again, through all of the protocols we have in place. We also have a very extensive testing program for surveillance, trying to detect any new cases as quickly as we can, make sure we get that person isolated, treated appropriately and removed from that team environment to prevent outbreaks. So I think part of how we mitigate risk on the field is arriving to the field uninfected.

But we've also, again, looked at some things on the field that can mitigate risk, such as these Oakley mouth shields. ... It's basically if you think about an eye visor that some of our players have worn, it's an extension of that where you have a multilayer plastic device with a filter in it that actually does come down and cover the nose and mouth area. So we think there are some things like that, that on the field can be beneficial again in mitigating risk.

The NBA has created just a massive bubble, where all the teams, the staff, the press, everyone is together at this resort to protect them. Why not consider that for the NFL? Or maybe you did, but why didn't you do it?

Yeah, we absolutely did consider that. In fact, we considered many different options and scenarios of what we thought the season could look like. And what we ultimately settled on is what we're calling a "virtual football bubble," which means that, yes, teams are in their own home markets. And yes, players, coaches and staff can stay at their own homes.

But when everyone is at the facility, they're under a very careful set of protocols. They're under a number of measures that we've put in place. And then we're asking them essentially when they're not at the team environment to mostly stay at home, if you will. But when they go out to observe all of the best precautions that we can recommend, which means avoiding large gatherings, avoiding crowds, making sure they're doing masks and all of the other measures that we know that work.

We settled on that approach because we thought it combined the elements of risk mitigation with also being practical and pragmatic over the course of a six-month season.

NPR's Avery Keatley and Mohamad ElBardicy produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

First baseball, then basketball and now football is back. NFL training camps are underway, and the season is set to start in September. But some players are opting out because of the threat of COVID. And one head coach has already tested positive. So how does the NFL plan to keep teams safe? Dr. Allen Sills is the league's chief medical officer.

ALLEN SILLS: We always say that the game of football and physical distance do not go together. That's for sure. But realize that the three hours of the game time represents a small fraction of the overall week of the team being together. So I think part of how we address that is trying to make sure that everyone who gets to the field is not infected. And we do that, again, through all of the protocols we have in place. We also have a very extensive testing program for surveillance - trying to detect any new cases as quickly as we can, make sure we get that person isolated, treated appropriately and removed from that team environment to prevent outbreaks.

So I think part of how we mitigate risk on the field is arriving to the field uninfected. But we've also, again, looked at some things on the field that can mitigate risk, such as these Oakley mouth shields. You may have heard about it. But it's basically - if you think about an eye visor that some of our players have worn, it's an extension of that where you have a multilayered plastic device with a filter in it that actually does come down and cover the nose and mouth area. So we think there are some things like that that, on the field, can be beneficial, again, in mitigating risk. And that's what this is all about.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that the NFL placed 51 players on a COVID-19 list, indicating that they themselves have tested positive or they have been in close contact with someone who has. I mean, we haven't even started yet. What happens to those players who are on that list?

SILLS: Well, anyone who is obviously diagnosed with a new COVID infection goes into one of our treatment protocols, which, again, is determining by monitoring them, supporting them medically, providing the appropriate medical care and then clearing them by the accepted public health guidelines to come back. But I'd point out that not everyone who is on the COVID IR list is a new positive case. In some cases, some of them may have been infected over the previous months, but they weren't tested at that time or they didn't know they were. But as we get our teams together, we're being incredibly cautious in making sure that we really take no chances in terms of letting anyone into the team environment who might be positive.

MARTIN: But the truth will be that at any time someone gets a positive test, they'll have to quarantine for at least 14 days or until they get a negative COVID test. That's inevitably going to mean a rotating door of players. Can you really play a whole season that way?

SILLS: Well, I think we've said that throughout the season, we expect to have positive cases. The reason for that is no matter how careful that we try to be and how many protocols we have in place, we know that this disease remains endemic in our societies and our communities and it's highly contagious. And so we think that despite doing all we can, we will have some new positive cases. We're all going to have to try to learn to live with this virus in a sense because we don't think it's going away anytime soon.

MARTIN: The NBA has created just a massive bubble - right? - where all the teams, the staff, the press even - everyone is together at this resort to protect them. Why not consider that for the NFL? Or maybe you did - but why didn't you do it?

SILLS: Yeah. We absolutely did consider that. In fact, we considered many different options and scenarios of what we thought the season could look like. And what we ultimately settled on is what we're calling a virtual football bubble, which means that, yes, teams are in their own home markets and, yes, players, coaches and staff can stay at their own homes. But when everyone is at the facility, they're under a very careful set of protocols. They're under a number of measures that we've put in place. And then we're asking them essentially when they're not at the team environment, to mostly stay at home, if you will, but when they go out to observe all of the best precautions that we can recommend, which means avoiding large gatherings, avoiding crowds, making sure they're doing masks and all of the other measures that we know that work. We settled on that approach because we thought it combined the elements of risk mitigation with also being practical and pragmatic over the course of a six-month season.

MARTIN: Major League Baseball had to put the Florida Marlins' season on pause after half that team tested positive for COVID. I mean, did that strike fear in your heart?

SILLS: I mean, look. We've said very clearly, this is hard. It's very hard to operate a team sport in these times - when we're facing these types of situations. But at the same time, I think it also shows that that's why we have the testing and screening protocols in place. You know, if there's going to be any new infections, we want to detect them as quickly as we can, get those individuals isolated and provide them the appropriate treatment. And if, you know, pausing that team's activity is the appropriate thing to do, then we and others have to be prepared to do that. I think that's just how professional sports are going to look in the midst of this pandemic. These are the things that we have to do to try to keep everyone as safe as possible and yet coexist with this virus.

MARTIN: Dr. Allen Sills is the chief medical officer for the National Football League. Thank you so much for your time. We do appreciate it.

SILLS: Hey, thanks for having me.

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