The NFL will stop mandating weekly COVID-19 tests for asymptomatic vaccinated players, according to memos distributed Saturday, a major shift that could allow the virus to spread undetected through locker rooms and allow infected but otherwise healthy players to play.
The NFL and NFLPA announced the “more targeted testing plan” in a statement, along with “more flexibility” for players “to attend meetings virtually” and opportunities for “high-risk players” to opt-out of the remainder of the season.
From Today’s Memo:
The changes come two days after the NFL tweaked its return-to-play protocol for players who test positive, one day after three games were postponed, and at the end of a week in which the virus sent over 100 players to the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Saturday memo, however, that “roughly two-thirds” of cases among NFL players and staff this week have been asymptomatic, while “most of the remaining individuals have only mild symptoms.”
Those facts, amid what NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills called “a new phase of the pandemic,” led to Saturday’s change, which some experts believe endangers not only players but their family members and people they come into contact with away from football.
The move further incentivizes vaccination, which experts widely believe to be a sports league’s biggest weapon in battles against the pandemic. (Unvaccinated players will continue to test daily.) But new variants of the virus, including the Omicron variant, have been spread to and by vaccinated players and coaches. The new protocols, sports epidemiologist Zach Binney said in text messages Saturday, are the NFL “basically announcing that they’re giving up on infection control.”
“These new protocols will result in everyone in the NFL coming into contact with COVID,” Binney said. “The hope is if you’re vaccinated — and especially if you’re boosted — you’ll be able to fight off the virus with no or mild symptoms. But unless you’re boosted it’s quite likely you’ll contract the virus and perhaps spread it to others, as well.”
The protocols shift responsibility for a given person’s health and safety from the collective to the individual. Players will “retain the option to attend meetings virtually and wear a mask within the facility,” Goodell said in his memo. Players and their families will also be given access to daily testing. The NFL will even distribute at-home tests and allow players to self-report positives if they choose.
But without a requirement, many players — including some who feel the NFL should do away with COVID-19 protocols altogether — will have an incentive to decline to test, because a positive test would rule them out of games.