Due to the proliferation of the COVID-19 delta variant and the rise of “breakthrough” positive cases among vaccinated individuals, the NFLPA will recommend to the league that vaccinated players and staff be tested every day they enter a club facility.
The recommended protocols would exempt vaccinated individuals from some of the stricter protocols governing unvaccinated ones, but it would require they be submitted to more testing than the current rules require.
Current NFL protocols require daily testing for unvaccinated players but only require vaccinated players and staff to test every 14 days.
In a conference call Wednesday night with reporters, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said the league continues to collect data on the first week of training camp and made no commitment to increasing testing cadence.
“We are collecting a lot of data and we will continue to share that data with our experts,” Sills said. “If we think we need more frequent information, vis-à-vis with more frequent testing, then we’ll discuss that again with the NFLPA and make that decision jointly. That will be driven strictly by our data and what we’re seeing, and if we think there’s truly a yield on that.”
In a memo the NFLPA sent to its membership Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, the players’ union said it was recommending the change based on “the current outlook on COVID-19, the Delta variant and the results of the first week of training camp testing analysis.”
The memo says that since training camps began, the NFL and NFLPA have tested 2,528 players and 4,549 staff members and have had at least 65 positive cases. Of those 65 cases, the memo says, 32 are among vaccinated individuals. It also says there have been two outbreaks inside of club facilities already this year (Atlanta and Miami), while it took until Week 3 of last season to see a transmission within a team facility.
“We have consistently stated that football will go the way of our communities, and multiple cities and states are experiencing record surges in infections and hospitalizations due to the Delta variant,” the memo states. “Based on our experience from last year, the number of positive tests in the first week of training camp is cause for concern.”
Sills said he could not discuss details about a specific team but disputed the use of the term “outbreak” to describe anything that has happened since training camp opened.
“We have seen situations where we have had multiple positive cases within a team,” Sills said. “That’s very different to us from an outbreak, which we would define as uncontrolled spread without an understanding of the chain of transmission and lack of protection of individuals, and I am quite adamant that that is not what we’ve seen from any of our clubs to this point.”
The memo stresses the point that the COVID vaccines work and, based on expert research, are greater than 80% effective against all variants. But it also stresses that the delta variant is “NEW and is 50% more contagious than the original strain of the coronavirus.”
As a result, the union is recommending BRL PCL testing for vaccinated staff and players each day they enter the team facility, “the goal of which is to detect positive cases quickly and prevent the spread of the virus.”
Under the union’s proposed new protocols, vaccinated players and staff would not have to wait for their test results to come back before entering the facility and would not be tested on off-days or during bye weeks. Unvaccinated individuals have to test each day and wait in their car for a negative result before entering the building. They are also subject to testing on off-days and during bye weeks, when they are not permitted to travel. Vaccinated players are permitted to travel during bye weeks.
The memo also says the union will be recommending reducing the number of staffers allowed in locker rooms and, “in the event of an apparent virus spread among a club, masking may be required for all players and staff, regardless of vaccination status. This is similar to the intensive protocols last year and designed to prevent an outbreak.”
Cleveland Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter told ESPN on Tuesday that he knew vaccinated players wouldn’t like the idea of more frequent testing but that he believes it’s the only way to make sure the league and the players have enough data to figure out how the virus is and isn’t spreading in team facilities.
“Last year, where we started in training camp versus where we ended in Week 17 were two totally different places for the protocols, and it should be the same expectation this year,” Tretter said. “We’re learning more about delta every single day. Where we start training camp and where we end the season, those protocols are going to look vastly different. And that doesn’t mean it’s a failure or we didn’t do everything we could. It just means that we continued to follow the new data and science we learned to put us in the best position to have a season.”
The NFLPA has yet to discuss its new recommendations with the NFL. As of Wednesday, 90.3% of NFL players were at least one shot into the vaccination process.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert contributed to this report.