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If you read between the lines, ever so carefully, of the NFL’s latest coronavirus mess, you could tell, or at least suspect, that the league saw this coming.
It did not know, specifically, which Baltimore Ravens would test positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. It did not know, with certainty, that the Ravens’ outbreak would swell to double digits. It could not sense, the day before Thanksgiving, that concern would soon peak.
But when the NFL initially rescheduled a prime-time Thanksgiving game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, it did know the Ravens’ outbreak was ongoing. Its investigation had been extensive, replete with interviews, “genomic epidemiology” and more. It concluded, despite millions of viewers hoping otherwise, that the delicious AFC North showdown could not be part of holiday feasts.
And on Thursday night, in the exact time slot previously occupied by Ravens-Steelers, we saw why. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that four more Ravens players and one more coach had tested positive for COVID-19. Had the game not been pushed back, all four could have played while COVID-positive. The virus could have ripped through the team.
Instead, the Ravens are on lockdown to prevent further spread. Their facility is closed until Monday. And the NFL, on Friday, decided to reschedule their game in Pittsburgh yet again. It will now be played on Tuesday – if, that is, it can be played in Week 12 at all.
But there’s good reason to believe it can, and will, be played Tuesday. Because the outbreak, though superficially accelerating, should soon screech to a halt.
Why Tuesday is a safe date for Ravens-Steelers
What matters to the game’s status is not when a Raven last tested positive, or who tested positive. Competitive disadvantages aren’t relevant. What matters is when transmission ceased.
What we can say, with a decent amount of certainty, is that transmission probably occurred Sunday. That’s what the Ravens reportedly believe. That night, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mark Ingram tested positive for COVID-19. The tests were administered in the morning, meaning both played against the Titans while COVID-positive, and likely while infectious.
Four days later, multiple teammates tested positive. The following day, Lamar Jackson – a locker-room neighbor and backfield running mate of Dobbins and Ingram – landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The lag time lines up precisely with the virus’ incubation period. The vast majority of infections take 3-7 days to become detectable via test. If Dobbins, or Ingram, or another teammate or staffer infected his peers Sunday, epidemiologists would expect those infections to show up for the first time on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
This explains why the Ravens’ outbreak has grown even while the team operates remotely. Because they’re operating remotely, though, opportunities for further transmission have been slim.
Baltimore briefly closed its facility Monday morning, then reopened for an afternoon walkthrough, with players reportedly wearing masks. In hindsight, that Monday walkthrough and more in-person activities Tuesday morning were probably misguided. But the Ravens closed up shop again Tuesday after more positive tests, and have worked from home ever since. So while Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning might have offered the virus additional opportunities to spread, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday haven’t. Saturday won’t.
And this is why Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, expressed confidence on Wednesday that the game could be played Sunday, never mind Tuesday – while simultaneously hinting that the outbreak could still escalate.
“We feel like we have a really good handle on exactly when transmission occurred and how it occurred,” Sills told NFL Network. “And I think that we feel like we’re just a couple of days away from being out of that window of vulnerability.”
Translation: There could be more positives coming. We think we’ll catch all of them before kickoff.
Dr. Allen Sills says NFL feels Ravens are close to end of transmission period based on what it knows about how the virus has spread through the team. Tomorrow was simply too soon to be sure. pic.twitter.com/bTVVxe1tlu
— Judy Battista (@judybattista) November 25, 2020
Thursday fell inside the window that Sills mentioned. Friday does too. Sunday may or may not. It will mark seven days since the Ravens last spent a full day together; and played a full game together; and congregated in a sweaty locker room together. Had they not worked out Monday and Tuesday, it would have been a reasonably safe reunion date.
Tuesday however, seems far safer. It is unlikely that a player who contracted the virus Monday or Tuesday morning would test negative seven consecutive days thereafter, and much less likely that a player who contracted it Sunday would register eight straight negative tests.
It is rational, therefore, to think that any Raven who trots out onto Heinz Field next Tuesday will be virus-free. And so it’s sensible to play the game.
The other factors behind NFL’s decision
Of course, low-risk is not no-risk. Rapid pregame testing should be employed. Special travel arrangements, like those the Patriots made for a Week 4 game in Kansas City, will likely be necessary. Any player or staffer known to have had Sunday, Monday or Tuesday contact with an individual who tested positive should stay home.
But the postponement from Sunday to Tuesday will all but shut the outbreak’s window. It’s the responsible move.
The reason the NFL initially rescheduled for Sunday was Baltimore’s Week 13 game against the Dallas Cowboys. That was originally scheduled for Thursday night. With Baltimore now scheduled to play two days earlier, Ravens-Cowboys has been pushed back to the following Monday.
The league was likely reluctant to sacrifice millions of primetime TV viewers. But forging ahead on Sunday could have risked a reignited outbreak, which could have led to a cancellation, and a Week 18, and potentially further upheaval.
“We just want to contain this outbreak!” Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell tweeted Friday, two days after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. “Speaking from experience ... you don’t want to catch covid! This virus is brutal! I pray no one else has to go thru this. This is bigger than football.”
The NFL, even after rescheduling again, will continue monitoring the Ravens. “Obviously you have to take each day as it comes, and look for any new data that may emerge,” Sills said Wednesday. And more positive tests could emerge over the weekend. But they won’t necessarily jeopardize Tuesday.
“We’ve done a very, very deep dive into this situation,” Sills said. He and his team of experts “feel like we’re very close to the end of that transmission event, absent any new information that would change the facts that we have right now.”
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