Masks inside NFL team facilities could return, and testing frequency could increase, but the NFL still plans on playing in front of full stadiums this fall — despite a surge in COVID-19 cases nationally. Those were a few of the details the NFL revealed to reporters just hours after they learned that the Tennessee Titans are experiencing the worst COVID-19 surge since training camp began.
The Titans’ COVID-19 conundrum
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is one of nine members of the Titans organization who have tested positive since returning from Florida, where the team participated in joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.
Other Titans players currently on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list: tight end Geoff Swaim; linebackers Justin March-Lillard, Nick Dzubnar, and Harold Landry; defensive tackle Anthony Rush; and running back Jeremy McNichols.
Yet, NFL doctors view the league’s biggest spike in COVID-19 since training camp began as a “cluster,” not “an outbreak.”
An outbreak is when there’s ongoing transmission within a club. Apparently, the NFL does not believe that’s the case in Nashville.
Head coach Mike Vrabel has been away from the organization since popping positive over the weekend and told reporters that, while he is feeling well, PCR tests continue to detect the virus in his system. The Titans’ situation demonstrates the prevalence of breakthrough cases, as Tannehill is part of the overwhelming majority of NFL players to be vaccinated.
The league’s latest vaccination rate? 93% among players and over 99% among staff
And those vaccines have been effective in both reducing spread and minimizing symptoms.
The rate of infection among unvaccinated players is seven times higher than that of vaccinated players, according to Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.
“Vaccines are working … If we had [the NFL’s] vaccination rates in our country, we’d be in a far, far different place,” Sills said.
The surge in cases in Tennessee was not the league’s only COVID-19 headache Thursday. In Buffalo, a couple of outspoken unvaccinated players griped on social media about mask-related fines — over $14,000 each — they have received in recent days.
Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie posted a copy of his fine letter — in which the league punished him for flouting the mask policy, even on a day in which NFL representatives were on campus — with the sarcastic caption: “They got me! @NFL you win!”
That prompted teammate Cole Beasley, the NFL’s loudest anti-vaxxer, to chime in with his similar experience.
“Don’t worry they got me too,” Beasley wrote. “But I was wearing a mask when I was in close contact with a fully vaxxed trainer who tested positive and still got sent home. So what’s the point of the mask anyways? Meanwhile I’m here still testing negative and can’t come back. Make it make sense.”
What changes to the COVID-19 protocol might the NFL make?
The CDC has long said that while masks help prevent those who wear one from getting infected, they are most effective in preventing the person who wears one from getting others sick. In other words, the NFL forces Beasley and other unvaccinated players to wear masks in an effort to protect the people around them.
The NFL has not ruled out returning to a mask mandate for everyone while inside team facilities, regardless of their vaccination status.
The league is also recommending to the NFLPA — which has blocked a league-wide vaccine mandate — that testing become more frequent. Currently, vaccinated and asymptomatic players are tested once every two weeks. The NFL wants to change that to once a week.
As for the league’s fans, engagement is booming, with season ticket renewals at a five-time high, the NFL announced. The league wants all of those tickets used; there is no plan at this time to reduce capacity, even with the surge in cases nationally.