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Can We Learn from the NFL about Avoiding COVID?

The National Football League (NFL) had billions at stake because of the coronavirus. Avoiding COVID was a high priority. How did teams do it?
Can We Learn from the NFL about Avoiding COVID?
Covid-19 and Sports Concept. An American Football With Surgical Mask and a doctors hand holding a stethoscope to the ball to check its condition.

Has the National Football League figured out practical strategies to prevent the transmission of COVID-19? Most people look to infectious disease experts and public health authorities when it comes to avoiding COVID. But the NFL has something important at stake: skin in the game!

Avoiding COVID Equals a BIG Payoff:

US football is big business. In 2019, the 32 teams in the NFL brought in over 15 billion dollars. That makes professional football the most profitable sport in the United States. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that the league has a vested interest in determining what works and what doesn’t when it comes to avoiding COVID.

Their research, published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, demonstrates that there is nothing magic about 15 minutes or six feet when it comes to contracting COVID-19 (MMWR, Jan. 29, 2021). For months, experts had been telling us that being within six feet of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes constituted a high-risk exposure. In theory, then, staying beyond six feet from an infected person for less than 15 minutes would be safe.

But the NFL, which tested its players repeatedly, found those guidelines didn’t hold up. The testing included genomic analysis that made it possible to connect who got the coronavirus from whom.

What the NFL Learned About COVID:

An outbreak among the Tennessee Titans that involved 21 individuals found that a dozen of them had no interactions of at least 15 minutes consecutively with an infected person. Seven had no interactions that added up to 15 minutes altogether. But meeting without masks, especially in a small, poorly ventilated space, was especially risky.

An unmasked shared car ride proved far more dangerous than an outdoor meeting with masks. Once the NFL figured this out, it took its contact tracing and quarantine precautions to the next level.

Avoiding COVID By Following the NFL Protocols:

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, sums up the most dangerous activities as meeting, eating and greeting. The intensive protocols the League adopted helped the teams complete 256 games over 17 weeks. That’s impressive.

Everyone associated with the teams was tested daily. That included players, coaches and staff. Contact tracing was intense. We have heard from people who insist that they would not accept electronic tracking devices. But by using such devices, the NFL was able to find people who might have been exposed to anyone who tested positive. The protocols were not optional. Mask usage and quarantines were not up for debate.

Dr. Allen Sills told the Washington Post (Jan. 25, 2021) about the NFL strategies for avoiding COVID: 

“It’s important to recognize that what our work shows is that the most impactful interventions were not those that were high-resource such as daily testing or the proximity tracking devices. The most impactful interventions are things that can be applied anywhere no matter the resources, things such as universal use of face masks, moving meetings outside or minimizing the amount of in-person meetings, closing dining rooms, offering only to-go food options, strictly enforcing quarantines after exposure. Those things all have broad applicability beyond football.”

Avoiding COVID should be a priority for everyone. The lessons that were learned and the protocols that were enforced got two teams to the Super Bowl this weekend. Following those guidelines plus vaccines might get the rest of the country to the other side of the pandemic. 

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
  • Mack, C.D., et al, "Implementation and Evolution of Mitigation Measures, Testing, and Contact Tracing in the National Football League, August 9–November 21, 2020," MMWR, Jan. 29, 2021.
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