LAS COLINAS, Texas — NFL leaders gathered Tuesday and Wednesday in North Texas for owners meetings and labor summit discussions. A substantial focus of their discussions: the sharp spike in COVID-19 cases across the league this week.
Roughly 100 NFL players have tested positive for COVID-19 since Monday, the league’s most significant outbreak since the coronavirus pandemic began in spring 2020. NFL staff members have also contracted COVID-19, including Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, who the Browns announced is both vaccinated and boosted. Eighteen Cleveland players, including those on practice squad, are in COVID-19 protocol. The Washington Football Team also has 18 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Nonetheless, the league does not anticipate postponing Saturday’s Las Vegas Raiders-Cleveland Browns contest.
“There has not been any discussion about that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday afternoon in a briefing as league meetings concluded. “We feel confident that with continuing changes and adaptations through our protocols that we can (play).”
Game postponement is not the goal, Goodell said. The league plans to instead continue leaning on roster-management flexibility and has not outlined a threshold for rescheduling a game.
“I don’t think we have something we’ve set as a specific,” Goodell said. “We’ve given our clubs a lot more flexibility with respect to the ability to remove players off that practice squad and also off the injured reserve. Those things have allowed clubs to be sure they’re maintaining the best competitive product out there.”
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The NFL postponed games in 2020 when it felt playing could further expand an outbreak, but believes the current vaccination state of the league has changed the parameters.
“We can’t apply 2020 solutions to the 2021 problems we’re having,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills said, adding the league does not expect to return to the 2020 policy dictating daily testing for the virus.
“Testing is one of the tools that we have at our disposal, and it’s a very useful tool in certain areas,” Sills said. “But what testing doesn’t do is prevent transmission, and we’ve known that always. … What we’re trying to do is prevent spread within the facility and keep people from testing positive.”
The NFL Players Association has lobbied the league for daily testing protocols. NFLPA president JC Tretter advocated for daily testing before the season began but the league only instituted it for unvaccinated players, vaccinated players previously subject to biweekly testing and now weekly testing. The players association tweeted Wednesday that the league took away “a critical weapon in our fight against the transmission of COVID-19” when countering the advent of daily testing and the union is discussing “potential changes to the protocol so we can complete the season.”
Sills argued that healthcare facilities are not undergoing “surveillance testing of asymptomatic people” because it “hasn’t been found to be effective as a preventive strategy.” Protocol changes would be more effective, he said, if they emphasize masking, social distancing and restructuring exposure in meal and meeting times. Sills also said the league has no plans to expedite the return process for vaccinated players who test positive. The decision remains based on when “they are no longer a risk to themselves or to others,” which does not dictate a more expedited timeline.
The NFL is strongly encouraging league members to receive a COVID-19 booster shot, which the majority of the league is eligible for as they are more than six months removed from their final dose toward full vaccination. Sills said the booster shot will decrease their likelihood of contracting COVID-19, decrease the likelihood they develop severe illness and “we think there’s reasonable data they’re less likely to spread their illness as well.”
Sills said this week’s cases, which have included the detection of the Omicron variant, have trended two-thirds asymptomatic while the other third of individuals have mild cases. But recent cases have proven more infectious and prompted greater rates of transmission among members of clubs.
Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones declined to say what policy changes he would recommend, but did endorse the NFL adapting in response to the recent surge.
“In order to be good at anything, you’ve got to be willing to change policy as needed,” Jones said. “We have to play option quarterback as a league.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.