Like so many other parts of life during the pandemic, football will look different this year. To play this NFL season, it takes a multi-faceted effort to tackle the challenges of COVID-19.
To keep players, coaches and personnel as safe as possible in the team environment, the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) have rolled out comprehensive health and safety protocols aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19. These guidelines cover every aspect of a club’s operations, including screening and testing, physical distancing, contact tracing, facility modifications and behavior-based overhauls.
But the work doesn’t end there. In addition to implementing robust safety protocols, the NFL and NFLPA are also using innovative safety-focused technology solutions and working closely with teams to provide educational materials to players, staff and family members.
“Risk mitigation is not one intervention, but a number of interventions you stack together in the hopes that the combination will be more effective than any of them individually,” said NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills.
“Our number one goal is to keep everyone safe and make sure that as best we can no one steps onto the field on gameday that is infected – whether that be player, coach or other personnel.”
Robust Testing Protocols
One of the key risk management strategies the NFL and NFLPA are employing this season is frequent COVID-19 testing.
Before any player or staff member was allowed access to club facilities for training camp, they underwent an intake process, which included three tests done over four days.
“We did that very deliberately based on experience from other sports to try to reduce the risk of anyone coming in and infecting a team environment,” said Dr. Sills.
Monitoring testing for players and staff continues daily. Results of those tests are available within 24 hours.
If a player has a positive result without symptoms of COVID-19, he needs to wait until ten days have passed to return to football activities or test negative twice at least 24 hours apart within 5 days of the original test.
If a player has a positive test accompanied by symptoms, he needs to wait at least ten days from the time symptoms first appeared, and at least 72 hours since he last experienced symptoms.
A New Environment
Club facilities underwent a transformation this year – from layouts to cleaning protocols.
Players and club staff are thoroughly screened every time they enter a facility. This includes a temperature check and a COVID-19 questionnaire as additional precautions to protect the team environment.
Once inside, players will find locker rooms that have been reconfigured to allow for physical distancing, strategically placed hand sanitizer throughout the facility, and rigorous cleaning practices in place to ensure high-touch surfaces are consistently and thoroughly sanitized.
Since COVID-19 is most commonly spread through contact from one person to another, players and staff are being asked to take extra precautions this year to protect each other.
“One of the most important things that you can do is to wear a face covering, such as a cloth face mask or a neck gaiter pulled up over the nose and mouth,” said Dr. Sills.
It’s also extremely important to maintain good hygiene practices. Consistent hand washing is vital, but it’s equally important that players and team staff avoid sharing personal items like water bottles, towels and food. Posters hang around club facilities as reminders and steps have been taken to eliminate shared items.
An Innovative Approach to Contact Tracing
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented need for contact tracing – and in turn, a need for innovative approaches to contact tracing.
The league is using a new technology to assist in this critical step to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. And it has been deployed league-wide as a core component of the NFL’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
A lightweight, wearable device, called a Proximity Recording Device, is mandatory for players and club personnel when at the club facility, during practices, and during team travel. About the size of a watch face, the device is worn as a wristband or on a lanyard. Players even have them built into their equipment for use on-field in practice and games.
The device gathers information about individuals’ proximity to each other – by distance and length of time – in order to perform quick and accurate contact tracing and notify users with lights and sound if they are too close to one another. It’s a novel solution for an historically cumbersome process.
Equipment innovation has long been at the core of the NFL’s health and safety efforts. Channeling the entrepreneurial spirit to develop solutions that meet this uniquely challenging moment was a logical transition for the league’s medical experts and engineers.
“Like everything we do, whether we’re talking about better cleats or better performing helmets, it’s all about something that’s safer and yet also protects performance,” said Dr. Sills.
“That’s the same mantra and the same sort of approach that we’re taking with the Oakley mouth shield.”
The mouth shield was designed by Oakley in partnership with the NFL and NFLPA’s medical and engineering experts. Designed to fit inside the facemask of a helmet, it provides face coverage to help reduce the transmission of large respiratory droplets during active play in games and practices.
An Ongoing Commitment to Safety
The NFL continues to work with players and club personnel to educate them and their families about the virus and ensure all of their questions are answered and to foster responsible decision-making outside of the football environment.
Before training camp began, each club held at least one live virtual education session for players and members of the football staff. Clubs were also required to hold a virtual information/education session for family members of players and club football staffs.
As part of those efforts, the NFL and NFLPA have jointly developed educational materials for players, club personnel and their families regarding reopening club facilities, staying safe at practice and 2020 COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
As medical and scientific knowledge of the virus continues to grow, the NFL and NFLPA are prepared to evolve COVID-19 protocols to reflect the most up-to-date best practices.
“We expect our protocols to change and adapt based on what we’re learning, and you’ll see us continue to make changes as we gather more data throughout the course of the season,” said Dr. Sills.