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ben volin | on football

Don’t let Dr. Anthony Fauci burst your bubble, NFL fans

Dr. Anthony Fauci had a blunt message for football fans Thursday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci had a blunt message for football fans Thursday.Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg

At first glance, it seemed that Dr. Anthony Fauci was providing a dose of reality for football fans Thursday.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN.

“If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

In one fell swoop, Fauci crushed a lot of optimism about the NFL being able to hit the field this fall. He intimated that the league’s current plans to play through the COVID-19 pandemic are inadequate, and that the only way to play would be in a hermetically sealed bubble, a la the NBA’s plans for Disney World.

But Fauci’s comments struck me as a bit odd. For a story last month, I spoke with seven infectious disease experts, two former NFL team doctors, and one former NFL team trainer about what it will take for the NFL to play this fall. Not one of them believed that a “bubble” scenario was ideal or even possible.

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Anthony Fauci says the NFL may have to adopt the "bubble" approach this season.
Anthony Fauci says the NFL may have to adopt the "bubble" approach this season.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

Instead, the consensus was that a combination of frequent testing and quarantining, plus strict social distancing inside team facilities, could mitigate the spread of the virus enough to allow the NFL to make it through the season. The NFL has been up front in acknowledging that some players, coaches, and employees undoubtedly will test positive throughout the fall.

“You’re going to have to find some way to live with this virus,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a member of the NCAA’s coronavirus task force. “I think that involves robust testing, social distancing as best as can be done, and protocols for how to deal with exposures and infections in players.”

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Fauci’s comments seemed to catch the NFL off-guard. It’s not as though the league is going at this willy-nilly. The social distancing protocols that will be instituted this fall — which Ravens coach John Harbaugh blasted as “humanly impossible” to follow — were developed not only by the medical directors of both the NFL and the NFL Players Association, but also in consultation with the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network and the Centers for Disease Control.

The NFL’s response Thursday had a “thanks, doctor, but we’re on it” feel to it.

Dr. Allen Sills speaks with the media prior to Super Bowl LIII.
Dr. Allen Sills speaks with the media prior to Super Bowl LIII.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches, and other essential personnel,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel, and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”

Prior to Fauci’s comments, every expert I spoke to or read believed that the NFL’s plans for testing, quarantining, and social distancing were the most practical approach for trying to have football this fall.

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“I think that’s probably much more practical than having people basically be sequestered for the entire football season,” Adalja said. “I don’t think many people would sign up for that.”

The NBA is attempting to adopt a “bubble” approach at Disney World, but only for a couple of months.

Here’s what it would take to pull off a “bubble” for the NFL season, from Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center:

Dr. Shira Doron talks with staff during a COVID-19 briefing at Tufts Medical Center in March.
Dr. Shira Doron talks with staff during a COVID-19 briefing at Tufts Medical Center in March.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“If you’ve tested everybody, and they’re negative, you isolate everybody — they’re not allowed to see a soul, nobody comes in from outside to clean the bathrooms — test them again at the end of two weeks and they’re all negative, you have a pretty good chance that if you don’t let anyone in from the outside, you could keep them all negative for an indefinite period of time.”

Got that? So all it would take is requiring thousands of people across the NFL to agree to say goodbye to their families, live at their team facilities, and not have any physical contact with the outside world from August to January (or February).

“I’m not suggesting that it’s a reasonable thing to do,” Doron said.

She was not alone with that assessment.

“How many people are going to want to live like that for that long, if they have to be apart from their family or significant other?” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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I don’t even believe Fauci’s comments were all that different from what other experts have been saying. He didn’t say the NFL should adopt the NBA’s “bubble” concept; he said the NFL needs to live “essentially in a bubble.” To me, that means adhering to social distancing at work, which the NFL is instituting. And it means encouraging players not to go out to restaurants and clubs and to take extra precautions to avoid crowds, which the NFL also is doing.

What's next for Roger Goodell and the NFL?
What's next for Roger Goodell and the NFL?LM Otero/Associated Press

Fauci’s statement also recommended that players be tested “nearly every day.” That is one area in which there is still plenty of debate. Some experts believe daily testing is necessary. The German soccer league is testing its players twice a week. Early word from the NFLPA is that players will be tested three times per week in the fall.

And the last part of Fauci’s statement about a second wave potentially imperiling football is absolutely true. Many experts believe the NFL should be able to start the season on time, but could have trouble finishing it on time, if conditions worsen significantly in November and December.

“I think they may want to think about a shortened season,” said Dr. Davidson Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine.

Fauci’s comments caused a lot of anxiety that the NFL won’t be able to play this fall. But a lot of other experts believe that the NFL’s plan to test, quarantine, and socially distance is the best way to go. And a “bubble” scenario is definitely not feasible.

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin