A deeper look at NFL COVID-19 protocols and the Saturday before Titans-Vikings

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The NFL had been praised for its COVID-19 protocols, which helped keep positive tests to a minimum

Until a Titans’ outbreak that has resulted in the postponement of their Week Four home game against the Steelers.RobinsonVrabel2020MH

So far, the Vikings have had no positive tests, even as the Titans returned from their Sept. 27 win and had five players and six staff members prove infected with the coronavirus in three days of tests.

We don’t know where or when they got sick.

When the team returns to its headquarters next week after a weekend off because of the postponement, the Titans will operate under new, "post exposure COVID procedures" that include all virtual meetings and masks and gloves for players during practice.

Shane Bowen went into the NFL’s COVID protocol Saturday morning, staying in Tennessee as the team traveled. But Bowen had virus to shed before he tested positive, so odds were pretty good that some of the Titans' traveling party had it too.

“When we got the results early in the morning, Todd (Toriscelli) and his staff and Adrian (Dixon) begin the contact tracing,” Mike Vrabel said. “They do the follow-up testing and then we proceed from there with the protocol as a relates to any of the positives that would come up.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an internationally renowned infectious disease specialist from Vanderbilt said the Titans and the NFL did their investigation and then made their decisions.

"It's all a risk-benefit analysis," he said. "The NBA put everybody into a bubble right? In this kind of a circumstance, they are relying I think, a lot, on their frequent testing. They are relying on the team making an initial judgment about the nature of the person who is affected and who (else) should be kept home, in effect.

"Sure, it could be tightened up, absolutely. If you were approaching this on a purely public health basis, undoubtedly a lot more people would have been put into quarantine."

Contact tracing does not amount to tracing casual contact. Here’s what the NFL has teams look at, per its player health and safety information.

ContactTracingProtocolIt seems reasonable to wonder if players and personnel took the virus to Minnesota and provided more occasions to spread it among themselves or to the Vikings.apple icon 114x114 precomposed

“We continue to follow protocols from the NFL that were set forth and that continues to change and adapt and adjust,” Vrabel said when I asked about the potential for such things. “Whatever the NFL tells us that we're required to do and we're supposed to do as positive tests come in, that's what we'll do.”

The team returned to Nashville Sunday evening. Players are not allowed in team headquarters this season the day after games (with exceptions for injured guys in need of treatment) and Vrabel said earlier this week he and Jon Robinson decided to minimize the total number of people who were there at all this Monday.

On Tuesday, DaQuan Jones, Beau Brinkley and Tommy Hudson tested positive as did five staffers. A few of those, I reported, are coaches, though as of Thursday that did not include Vrabel or Arthur Smith. The NFL shut down the Titans facility until at least Saturday.

On Wednesday, Kamalei Correa tested positive.

On Thursday, Kristian Fulton and another staff member were added to the list.

While social distancing protocols were followed, did the Titans enhance the chances to pass the virus around by getting on

--busses from the facility to the Nashville airport
--a flight to Minneapolis
--busses from the Minneapolis airport to the J.W. Marriott at the Mall of America
--busses from the J.W. Marriott to the U.S. Bank Stadium
--busses from the stadium to the Minneapolis airport
--a flight to Nashville
--busses from the Nashville airport to the facility

Schaffner (pictured) does not believe the positive tests that have come to light so far came from there, but some could still emerge from those spaces.

"The other people who've been found positive, I think they are unlikely to have become positive on the trip," he said. "They probably weren't exposed on the trip, they likely were exposed here in Nashville before they got on that bus. They just hadn't tested positive yet.Schaffner

"They could have shed it and exposed others around them of course. The kind of exposures that are most important are within the same team, during the periods where they are not actually on the field, quasi-outdoors, but in enclosed spaces, busses, locker rooms, hotels, eating together, those kinds of exposures."

We saw the Miami Marlins quarantined in Philadelphia for a week after an outbreak in late July/early August that affected roughly half the baseball team.

I'm not suggesting the Titans shouldn't have come back once they went, or that they did anything wrong by going under the NFL's rules.

Perhaps, however, there is a hole in policy that allowed them to go and that pre-emptive consideration of the Titans-Vikings game could have left Tennessee and the NFL in better shape regarding the Steelers-Titans game.

It's built into that risk-benefit analysis Schaffner mentioned, I suppose.

That risk will go down when the Titans reassemble sometime next week, under the tighter new protocols until Dr. Alan Sills decides when the steps are no longer needed.

"The situation should have resolved itself by two weeks," Schaffner said. "We should know exactly what the circumstances are. They are all being tested daily. We ought to see what the dimensions of this problem are and given all the interventions that are being put into place, I hope it'll to stop right now. They were able to do that with the Marlins, right?

"Let's see if we can't do it with the Titans also."

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