The NFL Challenged Conventional COVID-19 Wisdom and Kept Playing
The Seattle Seahawks won’t be playing in the Super Bowl this weekend, but the team accomplished something this year that no other National Football League (NFL) franchise did. Not a single Seahawks player or coach tested positive for COVID-19.
What is perhaps even more remarkable than Seattle’s perfect season is what that means the rest of the league endured during the past few months. When the NFL season comes to an end on Sunday night, the league will have survived potentially destabilizing outbreaks within 31 of its 32 locker rooms—at a time when cases and deaths were spiking across the United States. But the NFL reached its championship game without having to cancel a single one of the 269 scheduled games in the regular season and playoffs—and, most importantly, without any deaths due to the virus.
The NFL accomplished that feat with the help of nearly 1 million COVID-19 tests conducted since August 1, strict protocols for players and staff, a robust contact-tracing system that intercepted potential outbreaks, and (if we’re being totally honest) probably a bit of good luck too. In staring down the virus’s blitz, the NFL showed that it is possible to balance caution and continuity—that even before a vaccine is widely distributed it is possible to slow COVID-19’s spread without shutting everything down.
Along the way, the league also challenged a core tenet of the public health community’s understanding of how COVID-19 spreads.
As The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, a mid-October outbreak in the Tennessee Titans’ locker room proved stubbornly difficult to contain under existing protocols that assumed someone should be considered to have been “exposed” to the virus only if they’d been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. But most of the 21 people within the Titans organization who eventually tested positive had no direct interactions with one another for that length of t
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