The NFL defended its decision to play a game Wednesday between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, saying it was confident that a COVID-19 outbreak among Ravens players and staff had concluded and posed no threat for further infection.
“We can say with confidence that there is no active infection among the players, coaches and staff on the Ravens sideline today,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said during a conference call two hours before kickoff. All members of the Ravens’ traveling party returned negative results during rapid point-of-care tests Wednesday morning. Before that, however, the organization had produced 10 consecutive days of at least one positive test, including at least 14 players. The Ravens were set to take on the Steelers without quarterback Lamar Jackson, among many other key players.
But Sills said the league had used its contact tracing tools, from electronic tracking devices to genomic sequencing to internal video, to project the Ravens’ likely course of the transmission based on close contacts of positive individuals. The league’s model came within one day of accurately predicting the end of the outbreak, Sills said.
“We can really drill down and understand, did the virus pass from Person A to Person B to Person C? Or are these separate strains of transmission that come out of the community?” Sills said. “We take all the pieces of the puzzle together to continue to assemble a more clear picture of the outbreak. … We’ve also used a guiding principle of when it’s safe to resume and consider playing games, and that is when we know that transmission is understood to have stopped and that we don’t have concerns about ongoing individuals turning positive or being at risk. We’ve done that consistently throughout this outbreak with Baltimore.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell, meanwhile, called it a “remarkable achievement” for the league to have made it through 12 of its 17 regular-season weeks without canceling a game. He said the league’s “collective goal” is to complete the season and added “we are on a path to do that” despite rising infection rates around the country. The league continues to discuss its options for the playoffs, including the possibility of modified local bubbles for teams that advance. Goodell has ruled out a conventional bubble that would put the league under one roof.
Speaking for the first time since he refused to delay Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos, for which all four Broncos quarterbacks were placed in COVID-19 isolation, Goodell reiterated that the league will not take competitive implications into account.
“Health and medical decisions have and always will take precedence over competitive considerations and business interest,” he said.
Three Broncos quarterbacks were classified as “high-risk” close contacts of quarterback Jeff Driskel — who returned a positive test last Thursday — because they did not consistently wear masks or maintain social distance during a gathering at the team facility two days before. Sills has credited the “high-risk” classification for reducing the spread of infection in team facilities, and according to Goodell, more than 20 high-risk players, coaches or staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 while in isolation.
Sills said that policy, as well as another that has placed all 32 teams into “intensive” protocols, has helped lower daily positivity rates. A total of 156 people returned positive tests between Nov. 15-28, an average of 11.1 per day, according to NFL data. But in the past three days, Sills said, there have been a total of 10 confirmed positive tests around the league.