As COVID forces NFL into lockdown, testing changes are being made to get infected players back quickly

·NFL columnist
·4 min read

After rounds of intense discussion and negotiation between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, an agreement has been reached to revamp parts of the COVID-19 testing thresholds and get players back onto the field more quickly. 

Before that measure kicks in, the NFL has entered all franchises into the enhanced COVID protocols through the end of this week’s games in response to a massive spate of positive tests this week.

That means through the end of this week’s games, franchises will revert back to last season’s most stringent guidelines, which were set in place prior to COVID vaccines being available. In-person meetings will be prohibited unless they occur outside or in a socially distanced practice bubble; there will be 100 percent masking inside facilities regardless of vaccination status; eating in groups inside the facility will be prohibited; weight rooms will be limited to a 15-person limit; and team travel this weekend will feature hotel lockdowns with no visitors allowed. All public appearances scheduled for players, coaches and front-office staffers will be canceled and social gatherings larger than groups of three will be prohibited.

Rough week of positive tests for NFL 

The return to those stringent guidelines was undertaken after more than 116 players tested positive for COVID since Monday and fears that the Omicron variant could lead to rampant infection in the coming days and weeks. This week’s buzzsaw of infections included hot spots inside multiple franchises that will dramatically impact the starting lineups for teams this weekend, including the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams.

The NFL said in a statement Thursday:

“Throughout the pandemic we have continuously evolved our protocols to meet our goal of advancing the safety of the players, coaches and staff. The changes we are making today aim to address the increase in cases and the advent of the Omicron variant. Effective immediately, all clubs will implement preventative measures that have proven effective: masking regardless of vaccination status, remote or outdoor meetings, eliminating in-person meals, and no outside visitors while on team travel. We will continue to strongly encourage booster shots as the most effective protection. Finally, and based on expert advice, we will adjust the return-to-participation requirements for those who have recovered from COVID-19. All of these changes are grounded in our data and science-backed approach, with safety our number-one goal for the entire NFL community.”

Once teams have cleared the enhanced protocols through the end of Week 15, the changes to COVID testing protocols will kick in. The biggest alteration is NFL players who test positive for COVID can now get back into their team facilities as quickly as one day later if they meet this standard: If a player has been previously vaccinated and is asymptomatic for a period of 24 hours, they need only one negative test and one negative rapid-result swab to return to team activities. Under this new guideline, players can also begin re-testing immediately following the 24-hour asymptomatic period. Previously, vaccinated players who tested positive for COVID could begin retesting only after a five-day period and required two negative test results.

Another key change: Players with a technically positive test can also return to the facility depending on how low their viral load is — which is measured by a “cycle threshold” or “CT” value. If a player’s CT value is 35 or higher, they could register as COVID positive but not be considered infectious. With that in mind, the league and union agreed on a threshold that will allow players to return to the team with CT values of 35 or higher on tests.

This change to testing protocols begins Monday. A source familiar with the talks between the NFL and players union tells Yahoo Sports that the two sides have also been discussing more sweeping changes to COVID testing. The source said it likely will not include the end of all testing for vaccinated players, but will feature a structure that teams deem to be “sensible” but also based on science. The source declined to elaborate on what that means, but said that while changes are coming, the structure of those changes still is unsettled.