NFL COVID update: Titans in the clear, but what about Patriots?

One week after the NFL’s first coronavirus storm hit, the league finds itself in a precarious position.

As one COVID-19 outbreak stabilizes in Tennessee, two other teams played Monday night while at risk of a similar outbreak. Two games have been rescheduled. More could be in jeopardy, but another once thought to be in jeopardy was ultimately unaffected.

Here’s where the NFL stands at the conclusion of Week 4.

What is the status of COVID-19 in the NFL?

The Tennessee Titans, who did not play in Week 4 due to their outbreak, had 10 players and 10 staffers test positive for COVID-19 between Sept. 24 and Oct. 4. Those 20 people are all isolating. On Monday, Oct. 5, for the first time since Sept. 25, the Titans’ latest round of testing returned zero positives. On Tuesday, they received a second consecutive round of negative tests.

Meanwhile, this past Saturday, Patriots QB Cam Newton was placed on the COVID-related list, sidelining him for Week 4, and Chiefs practice squad QB Jordan Ta'amu tested positive. The Pats-Chiefs game scheduled for Sunday was postponed. All follow-up tests on Patriots and Chiefs personnel have so far come back negative. The game was played Monday night.

So are the Titans in the clear?

Yes – almost surely.

The virus’ incubation period is typically 3-7 days – meaning some people can test negative for six days after contracting the virus before testing positive on the seventh day. But Monday marked seven days since Titans players and staffers last had extensive contact with one another at the team facility.

With Monday’s tests coming back negative, the Titans are now clear of Day 7. They can be fairly confident that no individual who hasn’t already been identified contracted the virus before the team shut down all activity last Tuesday.

Will the Titans be able to play in Week 5?

The second consecutive day of negative tests cleared the Titans to re-open their practice facility on Wednesday. All personnel will still be tested daily. Provided they continue to test negative, in-person practice and meetings will resume.

That will give Tennessee a short-but-likely-sufficient week of preparation for its Week 5 game against the Buffalo Bills. The Titans will likely be without most or all of those players and coaches who have recently tested positive. But the Bills game could go on without them, and the Titans’ season would be back on track.

Are the Vikings in the clear?

The Vikings briefly shut down their team facility after learning of the Titans’ developing outbreak — because Minnesota had played Tennessee less than 48 hours earlier.

It has now been nine days since contact between the two teams, however, and all subsequents tests on Vikings personnel have come back negative. The Vikings, therefore, can be almost certain they avoided the virus.

What can we learn from the Vikings avoiding the virus?

That an NFL gameday didn’t lead to inter-team transmission is undoubtedly a good sign. But its significance is unknown, for a couple reasons:

1. Three Titans players tested positive on Monday, the morning after the game. Each of the three likely became infectious at some point between Saturday morning, when they tested negative, and Monday morning, when they tested positive. But when, exactly? It’s impossible to know whether those players were infectious during the game — and therefore impossible to know whether the Vikings were even at risk.

2. The three players placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Monday were defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, long snapper Beau Brinkley and tight end Tommy Hudson. They played 45, 10 and 0 snaps, respectively. (Hudson was on the practice squad.) They had less contact with opponents than, say, a starting offensive lineman would.

This, wrote Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University’s Oxford College, is “minimal evidence against [the] possibility of in-game spread in football.”

It does not, for example, mean infectious Patriots players wouldn’t be capable of spreading the virus to Chiefs players Monday night.

How has the Patriots’ situation been handled differently than the Titans’?

The Patriots’ situation, at one stage, was very similar to the Titans’ situation last Monday. One team employee tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, and learned of the confirmed positive on Saturday. That employee isolated and did not travel with the team. But Saturday tests on the rest of the team all came back negative.

This time around, however, NFL officials reacted a bit differently — and, at least superficially, with more caution. The league pushed the Patriots-Chiefs game back until Monday. The Pats didn’t travel until Monday morning, after multiple rounds of negative tests. They took two separate planes, one with roughly 20 “close contacts” of Newton, the other with the rest of the team.

It’s unclear what additional precautions the Patriots are taking with those “close contacts,” though. Despite negative tests, there is no way to ascertain that they haven’t contracted the virus and weren’t capable of spreading it Monday night.

Why did the Patriots and Chiefs play Monday night?

Playing Monday night was not safer than playing Sunday afternoon. Newton practiced and participated in meetings through the week before landing on the COVID-reserve list. (The team and Newton haven’t said the QB tested positive for the virus. The Patriots have acknowledged via statement that a player tested positive for COVID-19). If he infected teammates Friday, those teammates would be more likely to infect others on Monday night, three days after contracting the virus, than on Sunday afternoon, two days after contracting it. (Because, remember, the virus’ incubation period is usually 3-7 days.)

The NFL seemingly rescheduled the game to allow for more information gathering. Its chief medical officer, Allen Sills, told Sports Illustrated that the league suspected Newton had “a very large number of close contacts.” The postponement allowed for extensive contact tracing and more testing before the Patriots traveled to Kansas City. Players and staffers have reportedly undergone both standard PCR tests and rapid point-of-care tests since Saturday morning.

As of Monday night, all had come back negative. But you’d expect them to come back negative. Monday morning could be less than 72 hours after more Pats players contracted the virus. Monday night could be within that 3-to-7-day range.

So are the Patriots risking a Titans-esque outbreak?

Yes. The question, though, is how much risk. And that we don’t know. The NFL doesn’t know. Who, exactly, are the “close contacts” of Newton? How much contact will they have with fellow teammates, coaches and staffers on Monday night? What precautions are they taking? Will they come into work on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well?

There is risk, just as there is in everyday life, and in every football game. The NFL has all the information you’ve just read, plus a whole lot more. The league, in consultation with doctors, has made a risk-reward determination.

There’s a chance this ends with no more cases, like it did for the Falcons, who placed cornerback A.J. Terrell on the reserve/COVID-19 list prior to Week 3. There’s also a chance this ends with 20 or more cases.

When will we know if the Patriots are in the clear?

The Patriots were tested again Monday morning. On Monday night, all those tests came back negative – which means that, on Monday morning, the entirely traveling party likely wasn’t infectious. But it doesn’t mean they weren’t infectious Monday night. The next round of tests – administered Tuesday morning, with results Tuesday night or Wednesday morning – will be the key one. If they all come back negative, we know there was no spread of the virus Monday night.

Newton’s last contact with teammates was Friday, though. We won’t be able to say with confidence that the Patriots avoided an outbreak until this upcoming Friday, because of the incubation period. If no positives arise between now and then, the Pats would likely be in the clear.

If more positives do arise, though, the clock restarts, and the situation could begin moving in the same direction as the Titans’.

When will Cam Newton be able to return?

If Newton remains asymptomatic – and he has reportedly been feeling well – he can return once one of two things happens:

  • He tests negative on consecutive days

  • Ten days pass since his initial positive test

There is no way of knowing when he will start testing negative. The 10-day mark would be next Monday, the day after New England’s Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos.

Newton will also have to undergo cardiac screening, and must be cleared by the Patriots’ team physician before returning to the practice field.

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