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The NFL's Lessons From the Titans' Outbreak Are Quickly Being Tested

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to be nimble and adjust accordingly based on new information and shifting circumstances. That is what the NFL is facing right now. After a preseason and opening to the regular season that proceeded without any major issues, the NFL is now handling an outbreak at one club, the Titans, and a starting quarterback, the Patriots’ Cam Newton, being placed on the team’s COVID-19 reserve list the day before his team was scheduled to play a game, according to multiple reports and as confirmed by The MMQB’s Albert Breer.

In a statement, the Patriots said the team received notice late Friday night that one of its players tested positive for COVID-19. The player immediately entered self-quarantine, per the team; the team also said that other players, coaches and staff that had been in close contact with the infected player took point-of-care tests Saturday morning, all testing negative. Newton’s changed status grabbed headlines in a way that a Titans practice-squad player or even the team’s OLB coach did not—until that outbreak spread throughout the Titans organization.

The NFL has taken the step of postponing the Patriots’ game at Kansas City “to Monday or Tuesday”—though as we know in this pandemic world, that is just a placeholder. And one that may very well not be feasible. The league’s release added that both teams have had positive tests; the NFL Network reported that Chiefs practice squad QB Jordan Ta’amu has also been added to the COVID-19 reserve list.

The Titans have had three players and five personnel test positive for COVID-19.

Shifting circumstances, indeed—though still the same virus that has grinded our daily lives to a halt since March. The NFL had so far been able to conduct business without a bubble like the NBA, WNBA and the NHL, but is this the tipping point? The NFL has very quickly gone from no interruptions to two games having been postponed, concurrent with an outbreak in the federal government that has resulted in the hospitalization of President Donald J. Trump for close monitoring. The Titans’ outbreak reinforces the difficulties of containing a virus with an incubation period of 2 to 14 days, and a median of four to five days. The last time the Titans were gathered together as a team was Monday, and five days later new members of the team are continuing to test positive.

Last weekend, Falcons rookie CB A.J. Terrell became the first player to miss a game after being placed on the COVID-19 list the day before his team played the Bears. All other tests came back negative and so far there have been no other players or staff added to the COVID-19 list on either team. But, the Titans’ situation unfolded much differently: Practice-squad CB Greg Mabin was moved to the team’s COVID-19 list last Friday, then outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen received a positive test result Saturday morning and was removed from the team’s trip to Minnesota. The rest of the team’s Saturday PCR tests all produced negative results—but the next time the team was tested, 48 hours later on Monday morning, the results yielded eight new positives on Tuesday morning after overnight processing.

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The fact that the Falcons-Bears game did not result in any further spread, and that no Vikings players have since tested positive for COVID-19, should not be used as a standard for a game proceeding after a team member returns a positive result. To this point, NFL and NFLPA joint protocols had not included any testing on gameday, but following the Titans outbreak, new protocols were introduced for teams experiencing an active outbreak or that had been exposed to a team with an active outbreak—including the introduction of overnight PCR tests and point-of-care antigen tests to be administered on gameday.

But there can be numerous reasons why a person who has been infected with COVID-19 might test negative: The swab might not collect the virus, or the virus could simply have not reached detectable levels yet. Going back to what is taking place in the federal government, last Saturday’s event announcing the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett appears to have been a potential super-spreader event, despite guests testing negative ahead of time. This is why the NFL has been so vigilant about coaches wearing masks on the sidelines of games—despite the protestations of some coaches—levying fines and even going so far as to threaten suspensions or loss of draft picks for non-compliance.

What was done last week—the Titans traveling out of town to play a game after two positive tests within their organization—should not be done again. The outbreak may not have spread to the Vikings, but a lucky break should not set a standard. And there is more than the NFL community to consider: The NFL Network reported that a bus driver who drove the Titans in Minnesota last weekend (as well as the MLB’s Astros) later tested positive.

The schedule reshuffling the NFL has done so far has not been difficult, since no team yet had a bye week and games can more easily be moved. But the continued spread of the Titans’ outbreak raises questions about if they’ll be able to play next week. And there should be a serious conversation about if playing the Patriots-Chiefs game, even without new positives between now and Tuesday, is truly safe given the length of the incubation period. One option the NFL has left open is bumping back the playoffs to allow for a Week 18 or 19 in which makeup games could be played. But Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio wrote this weekend about a further step that may now be what’s necessary: for the league and the players union to agree to bubble NFL teams for the remainder of the season, sequestering them in hotels and cutting off potential exposures from the outside world.

The risk of things having gone well through camp and the early weeks of the seasons is that the stringent protocols and behaviors medical experts recommend can over time feel less essential. For those lucky enough not to have been affected by the virus, the threat may not feel as real. But this week—in the NFL and in our country—is a reminder that the virus is very much still here and still highly infectious, and that without a vaccine, these restrictive measures are our only defense. And for the NFL to proceed, the league and the players may need to agree to even more restrictions.