The NFL isn’t apologizing to the Patriots or admitting it did anything wrong when it sent the Patriots to Kansas City for a game just two days after approximately 20 members of the organization were exposed to COVID-19.
But the NFL did change its COVID-19 protocols on Monday to account for the exact situation encountered by the Patriots on Oct. 5.
The league didn’t call it a “Patriot rule” in a three-page memo distributed Monday, but it’s hard to read it any other way.
“Certainly the events of the last two or three weeks have taught us a lot,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said Tuesday.
‘“If there was one consistent theme to our season it is flexibility and adapting.”’
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
In the new rules, the team and league medical personnel will now evaluate every “close contact” of someone who becomes infected with COVID-19. Anyone deemed to be an especially close contact will be considered “high risk” and will have to isolate away from his team facility for at least five days, which could mean missing a game. This accounts for the incubation period of the virus.
This new rule is on point with what the Patriots experienced. Stephon Gilmore likely had a close contact with Cam Newton, traveled to Kansas City, and played in the game, then tested positive the next day. The new rule likely wouldn’t have prevented all 20 of the Patriots' close contacts from traveling to Kansas City, only the high-risk ones, which likely would have included Gilmore.
The Patriots were fortunate that an outbreak didn’t result and only Gilmore tested positive in the days following the Chiefs game. The NFL said it learned from the Patriots’ situation but wouldn’t admit that it put the team in a tough spot.
“I think as we’ve said we continue to learn all along about what transmission looks like and how it relates to our testing program,” Sills said. “It’s always a challenge to look at the information of when someone tested positive on a test, when might they be infected, and when might they be infectious to others. And those are actually questions that medical professionals are still grappling with with this pandemic.”
Other updates on the NFL’s battle against COVID-19 from Tuesday’s virtual owners’ meeting and media availability:
▪ Despite the Titans having an outbreak that infected 24 people, and the Patriots having a moderate outbreak, and the NFL having to move 10 games on its schedule thus far, the league still believes it is doing a great job of keeping COVID-19 at bay.
“We’ve had about 100 positive cases of COVID, and out of those 100 cases we’ve had the one case of significant transmission in one team, and a little bit of moderate transmission in another team,” Sills said. “In other words, largely our strategies have been very effective in mitigating spread among our team members.
“We continue to expect to have some positive cases, but our goal is … to make sure that a camp fire does not turn into a forest fire.”
The NFL released its latest COVID-19 stats on Tuesday. Between Oct. 4-10, when the Titans and Patriots were both dealing with outbreaks, the NFL reported only 15 new positive cases among 7,820 players, coaches, and staff. And between Aug. 1, when the testing program began and Oct. 10, the NFL had 99 total cases out of nearly 9,000 people.
The NFL was certainly doing well with COVID-19 before the Titans' and Patriots' situations of the past two weeks, and both teams seem to have the virus back under control. But commissioner Roger Goodell preached vigilance to all 32 teams on Tuesday.
“We stressed again today that we cannot grow complacent,” Goodell said. “Ninety percent is not good enough in this environment. We have to be incredibly diligent and disciplined.”
▪ The NFL also created an unofficial “Titans rule” in its Monday memo. The NFL announced that starting this week it is instituting COVID-19 testing for all team members on game days. Previously, the NFL tested six days a week but not on game day, as it feared that false positives would incorrectly pull players from games.
But the Titans' outbreak occurred, in part, because of a lack of game-day testing. The Titans all tested negative for the virus on a Saturday morning for a road game in Minnesota, but when they returned for testing on Monday, eight Titans tested positive, helping fuel their outbreak.
▪ Goodell declined to say Tuesday whether the Titans could face penalties for breaking any of the league’s protocols during their outbreak, specifically for holding player workouts when they were supposed to be isolating.
“This is not discipline,” Goodell said. “This is about making sure we’re keeping our personnel safe.”
A league source said the NFL wants to see the Titans get through their outbreak in a safe and healthy manner before levying any penalties, but that significant penalties should be coming relatively soon.
And the NFL is noticeably increasing its oversight over teams and their adherence to COVID-19 protocols. Per Monday’s memo, the NFL’s security department will start conducting “protocol compliance checks” beginning in Week 7 and will be requesting video footage of specific areas of club facilities; teams will be required to upload unaltered and original video from facility cameras to the NFL’s secure video transfer portal; and every Friday teams will be required to send the previous week’s practice schedule to the league office, and will be subject to discipline if they don’t make the 5 p.m. deadline.
▪ The NFL also strengthened its mask requirements on Monday. Masks are now required for all players and coaches during walkthroughs. And in games, coaches can no longer wear face shields in lieu of masks or double-layered gaiters, although play-callers are exempt and may wear only a face shield.
▪ Goodell, Sills, and Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations, acknowledged that several alternatives have been discussed at length by the NFL since March. For example, moving to a “bubble” scenario, adding weeks to the regular season, and pressing pause for a week or two.
“If there was one consistent theme to our season it is flexibility and adapting,” Goodell said.
But the NFL remains committed to keeping the schedule as is.
“The focus is playing the 256 games in the 17-week window,” Vincent said. “And we’ve been consistent on that.”