Analysis: NFL kicks off amid nation’s rising COVID-19 rates

CANTON, Ohio (AP) — As COVID-19 and Delta variant positives increase across America, the NFL kicks off its first preseason since 2019 expecting the usual crowds.

The numbers in the nation are of concern to some, staggeringly disappointing to others, and ignored by many. Within the NFL, though, it must be emphasized that the data is encouraging.

The league says more than 90% of its players have either begun or concluded the vaccination process. Nine teams have more than 95% of their players vaccinated, while a total of 27 teams is above 85%.

Yes, there have been some high-profile positive cases, including almost the entire quarterbacks room in Minnesota, but with league and team personnel required to be vaccinated — it remains optional for players — the league’s medical community is encouraged and optimistic about the upcoming preseason and regular season.

“With regard to results of testing, we’re seeing fewer cases overall with an intake (test) than did in 2020, which is more a snapshot of where everyone is as they gather” at training camps, said Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer. Noting a “lower incidence rate” for positive COVID-19 tests, Sills added that “would suggest the impact of vaccination. I think that is what is driving this lower incidence of cases.

“We are seeing cases among vaccinated players and they are asymptomatic for many; no one is seriously ill. That speaks to effectiveness of the vaccination.

“There are a very small number of these cases overall and that is despite a tremendous increase in the number of contacts. We are having many, many more contacts than we did a year ago, and that just suggests despite more exposures we’re not seeing an increase in cases.”

With that said, and with the NFL’s adjustments to protocols that now provide more freedom for vaccinated players, should fans worry about disruptions to the 2021 schedule? Remember, the NFL completed its regular season and playoffs on time during the heights of the pandemic, when it knew a lot less about COVID-19 and its variants than it does now.

But the league office also has presented the potential for forfeits if unvaccinated players cause an outbreak on a team that forces postponement and cancelation of games — not a comforting development for fans.

Maybe the answer to what might lie ahead comes with the suggested revision made for this week’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction festivities.

County officials in the Canton area have recommended wearing face coverings for all indoor activities, fearing the potential of a “super spreader” event. The hall’s Gold Jacket Dinner on Friday night is a traditional sellout and is held inside the Canton Memorial Civic Center, with social distancing almost impossible. This year’s dinner will feature members of three classes — 2020 and 2021, plus a special centennial class — after last summer’s event was canceled due to the pandemic.

In many portions of the country, government and health officials are suggesting — perhaps soon requiring — face coverings indoors. Pockets of America, some of them considerably large, have lagged far behind in vaccination rates.

The NFL is aware of these statistics and measures. Its research actually could aid communities in battling a resurgence of the coronavirus, according to Dr. Deverick Anderson of the Duke Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention. He also is co-owner of Infection Control Education for Major Sports.

“At this time last year there were certainly ongoing unanswered questions,” Anderson said. “One of the unique components of the program the NFL has together is really putting themselves at the front edge of the ability to answer a lot of unanswered questions to this point. Things that are very relevant not only for just this environment but public health in general.”

Sills is certain the league, in conjunction with the players’ association, will continue to make such contributions.

“We think we have a really unique opportunity here. I don’t really think anyone else is out there testing the large scale numbers of vaccinated asymptomatic individuals like we are, with these types of sensitive tests,” he noted. “We are going to have a very unique contribution, I think, that we can make to our understanding of what it means to have a positive test in a vaccinated individual, and also the ongoing protective effects of vaccination.”

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