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Opinion: NFL has led the way on COVID-19, and rest of country would do well to follow

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This country would be in much better shape if it was more like the NFL.

Yes, I said it.

While the stubbornly, and in some cases proudly, ignorant like Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, Kirk Cousins, Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson get most of the attention, the vast majority of the NFL has shown the kind of responsibility and concern for others that, if everyone emulated, might actually get us out of this pandemic.

As of Thursday, nearly 93 percent of NFL players – that’s more than 2,500 ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for regular-season roster cuts – are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The rate is even higher, 99 percent, for coaches and staff.

“This gives us the confidence to say NFL facilities are the safest places in the community,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said Thursday. “If we had those rates in our society, we would be in a far, far different place than where this pandemic currently is.”

The cynics will say the league is being proactive about vaccinations and COVID-19 protocols because it doesn’t want anything jeopardizing the season, and the billions it will generate, and they will be at least partly right. The skeptics will point out that players didn’t have much of a choice but to get vaccinated, given how restrictive the protocols are for those who don’t.

Even an NFL mascot, Rampage, is wearing a mask to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Even an NFL mascot, Rampage, is wearing a mask to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

But when the result is an organization that is vaccinated at nearly twice the rate of the U.S. population against a pandemic that is currently killing more than 1,000 Americans each day and stretching hospitals and health care professionals beyond their limits, whatever self-interest is driving the NFL can be forgiven.

“We have got to check ‘I’ at the door and go forward with ‘we,’ ” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier this week.

The NFL does not have the greatest track record when it comes to prioritizing the health and safety of its players. Or caring about the well-being of those close to them, for that matter. From the beginning, however, the NFL has treated the COVID-19 pandemic with the kind of gravity America needed from all its leaders.

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It closed its facilities in the spring of 2020, holding the draft and minicamps virtually. When the NFL did return to in-person work, it did so with strict protocols in place: virtual meetings, masks at all times, social distancing requirements, wearable monitors and video cameras to help with contract tracing.

The players were an integral part of this, insisting on daily testing during the season.

Once vaccines became widely available, the NFL went a step further.

It might not be mandating that players get vaccinated this season – why not is a matter of debate – but it has done everything but, enticing players with the promise of fewer restrictions for those who are vaccinated and a harsh existence for those who aren't.

Players who are fully vaccinated no longer have to test every day or wear masks in team facilities. Players who aren't do. Players who are fully vaccinated can go out to eat and see friends or family while on the road. Players who aren't cannot

And if there are positive cases, a fully vaccinated player deemed to be a close contact is not subject to quarantine, while an unvaccinated player is.

“It definitely poses a competitive advantage for higher vaccine rates on your team,” Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said last month, “just because of the close contact rates and what happens if somebody does unfortunately get COVID and what can happen to the rest of the building."

When individual teams have run into resistance, they’ve brought in noted epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists to answer questions and dispel myths.

Contrast that with what’s happening in the rest of the country, where people who should know and do better are eagerly enabling our worst selves.

Craven politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have actively tried to block basic, common-sense health measures such as mask mandates in schools under the false narratives of “freedom.” Soulless charlatans promote snakeoil remedies like ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine. Right-wing media continue to spread falsehoods about vaccine effectiveness.

The impact is obvious. Between Aug. 1 and 21, Sills said the NFL had 68 cases of COVID out of 7,190 tests, a positivity rate of 0.95 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the seven-day average in the United States is 11.1 percent.

“I just care about these players and I care about their families,” said Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who has been open with his frustration with players who refuse to be vaccinated. “That’s my main reason. If they miss a game because they get COVID, so be it. But I don’t want them to get sick and I don’t want their families to get sick and their kids to get sick or my grandkids to get sick.”

The NFL has gotten a lot wrong over the years, and has been rightly criticized for it. When it comes to COVID, however, the league is doing it right.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL's handling of COVID-19 vaccinations an example for entire country