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Games postponed and testing increased as Covid continues to impact athletes and teams

Faced with an alarming increase in the number of professional athletes testing positive for the coronavirus, along with the rest of the country, the NBA announced on Sunday it would postpone five games, bringing the total number of postponements related to the coronavirus in the NBA to seven this season. .

Also on Sunday, the NHL announced that “due to concerns over cross-border travel and given the fluid nature of federal travel restrictions,” it would postpone 21 games scheduled for Monday through December 23 that pitted Canadian teams against American teams. . These matches are scheduled to resume on December 27.

And on Saturday, the NFL and NFL Players Association changed their testing protocols, the fourth such adjustment in a week.

These were the latest changes to schedules and health rules that professional leagues made instead of stopping their seasons. With high vaccination rates among players and staff, the NFL and NBA have generally cut back on Covid-19 testing, which is in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who have been vaccinated do not need to be tested unless they are exposed or showing symptoms, according to the CDC, advice that professional leagues appear to be adopting after previously testing more frequently.

In a note to the 32 teams sent out on Saturday, Commissioner Roger Goodell said players would receive test kits they could use at home to help them “identify and self-report a possible infection before entering the tournament. ‘establishment”.

Vaccinated NFL players who are asymptomatic will be subjected to “strategic and targeted” testing, while players who report symptoms of a coronavirus infection will be tested “promptly.”

The NFL’s testing strategy mirrors that of other professional leagues, although the N.BA. and the NHL has temporarily instituted daily testing measures for players, regardless of their vaccination status, amid the current wave fueled by the Omicron variant: NBA players will be tested daily for two weeks starting December 26. , and NHL players began testing on Saturday and will continue until at least January 1.

“I wouldn’t describe it as we’re stopping testing” for vaccinated players, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said on a call with reporters on Saturday. “We’re trying to test smarter and more strategically. “

These decisions to rely on self-reporting symptoms have raised new questions about whether players will and risk missing a start if they are positive. It has worked in other areas of society, said Dr Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Hospitals, for example, have relied on the honor code and most do not test vaccinated employees every week, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adalja said sports leagues may also introduce other measures, such as one-time testing or symptom screening, to increase other tests.

“I think NFL players and coaches need to be professional and know that they don’t want to put other people in danger,” Adalja said. “They shouldn’t be playing sick, but that will obviously be as good as the honesty of the people there.”

The players union lobbied for daily testing for all players, as the league demanded in 2020, with the NFLPA president, JC Tretter, writing in a September 2021 article on the union’s website that simple weekly testing of vaccinated players could allow transmission of the virus within team facilities for a dangerously long period of time.

Goodell’s memo on Saturday follows a slew of Covid-19 protocol changes the NFL made in a week in which it was forced to postpone three of this weekend’s games, the first of those delays this season.

Facing a one-day record in positive player tests last Monday, the league imposed booster shots on team staff members who work most closely with players. On Thursday, after more than 100 players tested positive during the week, the league reinstated mandatory masks inside team facilities and restrictions on in-person gatherings. More than 130 players were placed on NFL teams’ Covid-19 reserve rosters last week, including at least 10 from the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns and Washington football team.

With the spike in positive cases threatening the weekend’s game roster, the NFL has also changed its policies to allow fully vaccinated players who have tested positive to become active faster, provided they are asymptomatic for at least 24 hours. Now, these players can return from quarantine the day after their first positive test.

On Saturday, the NHL announced strengthened protocols that include daily testing for all members of a club’s traveling team. Players and coaches are prohibited from eating inside restaurants and bars, and are encouraged to wear masks indoors.

A joint league-NHLPA statement released on Sunday said that after meetings with medical experts, the season will continue amid postponements; until now 39 NHL games will be reprogrammed. The need to temporarily close individual teams would continue to be made on a case-by-case basis.

The statement also said the league and players’ union “were actively discussing the issue” of the NHL’s participation in the upcoming Beijing Olympics and expected to “announce a final decision in the coming days.”

In England, the Premier League canceled almost all of its football games this weekend as teams were overwhelmed with positive cases.

Coronavirus cases have increased despite high vaccination rates among professional sports players. About 95% of NFL players are vaccinated, according to the league. This far exceeds the rest of the country, where 72% of people aged 18 and over have been vaccinated. But it trails other sports leagues slightly – only one NHL player is unvaccinated and 97% of NBA players have been vaccinated. Due to the high vaccination rates, Adalja said, there is no need to test the vaccinated daily. This type of surveillance detects cases that are “not very clinically significant” because most infected people are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.

“We’re going to have cases of Covid in the NFL in 20 years – they will continue to happen,” Adalja said. “I think we need to think about what we’re trying to achieve. “

Adalja expects the virus to become endemic and recommends that health officials across the board put their efforts into navigating a reality in which the virus is a part of everyday life. He added that in this situation daily testing would not be helpful.

The NFL has not required its players to be vaccinated, but has relaxed its Covid-19 protocols and restrictions ahead of this season for those who have been vaccinated, lifting mitigation guidelines like wearing masks and decreasing frequency of testing .

But with positive cases on the rise, professional football has reinstated many of the 2020 policies that have helped the league complete its entire regular season and playoffs on schedule, with only daily testing making a difference.

The relaxation of protocols highlights the choice that sports leagues and other businesses must make at this stage of the pandemic. Dr Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and professor at the University of Washington who has advised the Seattle Seahawks on Covid-19 issues, said he felt a desire among organizations to cut mitigation measures to return to a certain sense of normalcy. Gupta said each entity should assess their tolerance to positive tests at a time when vaccines offer strong protection against serious illness.

“We’re coming to a pivotal point, and I think Omicron is going to accelerate that, where we have to accept a new normal and a new paradigm of risk,” Gupta said in an interview last week.

“In the past 22 months this has been a positive test, test, trace, isolate,” Gupta added. “I think we’re going to start to normalize towards what we can actually evolve in terms of solutions that will keep people from going to the hospital. I bet that’s what the NFL is going to aim for.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson