COVID in sport could be mitigated by these protocol changes


Over 100 NFL players are now sidelined by COVID-19. One ice hockey team alone had 30 cases. An NBA team has 10 players, more than half of its roster, on “health and safety logs.” In England, meanwhile, nine Premier League games have been postponed and more could follow. Clubs are reportedly pushing for a temporary closure amid widespread outbreaks in the sporting world unlike anything they’ve seen before.

The Omicron variant has been spotted in multiple leagues, spawning what Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, called “a new phase of the pandemic.” League officials have spent the week figuring out how to deal with it. “The dynamics of the pandemic have changed for us,” Sills said on Wednesday. “And I think that will cause us to question some of our previous assumptions and also update our strategies and our solutions.”

Suggested solutions included everything from daily testing to allegedlyno testing for players who have received booster shots.

On Thursday, the NFL announced a first round of changes that includes changes to return-to-play protocol for COVID-positive players. It wasn’t the overhaul some believe will eventually be needed as the sport learns to live with a virus that, as Giants owner John Mara said, “seems like it’s never going to go away.”

However, the NFL’s adjustments were what some pundits see as the first step toward a new cross-sport approach. It could someday include a willingness to let athletes play through COVID. It will at least involve finding expedited routes back to fields and courts after positive tests.

Experts: The leagues could be considering bigger changes than the NFL has made

Throughout the 2021 season, NFL protocols have required any player who tests positive — including those who are asymptomatic and vaccinated — to isolate for either 10 days or until they test negative for two consecutive days. On Thursday, the NFL changed the latter option. in one Memo to team leaders and medical staffit outlined new protocols that could allow a player to return after a day of tests that either come back negative or show the player’s viral load, a measure of infectivity, exceeded a certain threshold.

The memo came a few hours after several experts suggested to Emox News that the NFL and other sports leagues may be considering even bigger changes.

The NFL’s updated protocols could be the first step toward a new phase of the sport trying to weather COVID. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University’s Oxford College, mentioned that a negative antigen test could be enough to acquit a player. Antigen tests are less sensitive than PCR tests, which the NFL used. They would still make sure that no one steps onto the field with an “a”. great high viral load,” Binney said, but would allow players who are significantly less contagious to return.

Kathleen Bachynski, an epidemiologist at Muhlenberg College, suggested the leagues could pursue a related strategy. With the delta variant, she noted, “the highest risk of transmission is really the few days before and the few days after [infected people] either show symptoms or test positive first.” She pointed out that in South Africa, consistent with that evidence, officials have been campaigning to halve isolation times from 10 days to five for healthcare workers amid dire shortages. Their reasoning is obviously much more serious than anything else in esports, but the science that supports them is similar.

There have been attempts in some sports circles to reduce isolation requirements, in part because many COVID-positive players remain physically fit to play. Sills said Wednesday that two-thirds of the cases in the highly vaccinated NFL this week were asymptomatic and the others were “very mild.” However, under previous protocols, very few players were able to meet the negative test requirement and return sooner than 10 days after their first positive result, despite not feeling sick.

The goal of any protocol, Sills explained, is “to give someone back when it’s safe for them to do so, when they no longer pose a risk to themselves or others.” A hypothetical change that allows players to return after a negative antigen test or Five days of isolation would theoretically halve the number of games missed by asymptomatic players while reducing the greatest risk of virus transmission within a team.

Will asymptomatic athletes be allowed to play soon?

A more extreme plan – and one that experts continue to hesitate but may accept in the future – would be to allow asymptomatic athletes to continue playing without wasting time.

Public health experts are almost unanimously opposed to any change that would reduce testing, even as a means of allowing indirectly vaccinated, asymptomatic COVID-positive players onto the field. With the rise of Omicron, the virus would permeate many locker rooms.

But they do not categorically reject an alternative idea:

  • Test all players daily since the NFLPA has championed thisto prevent massive outbreaks within teams and reduce the risk of players passing the virus on to family members or the community.

  • Continue to urge anyone who tests positive to isolate from work for 7-10 days, attend meetings virtually and avoid close contact with anyone indoors.

  • However, allow them to return to training and games if You and your team choose to do so provided you:

    • Are vaccinated and remain asymptomatic

    • Wear a mask at all times except in the middle of a game

    • Distance from all teammates, coaches and others whenever possible, including in the dressing room and on the sidelines

    • Travel in private vehicles or on separate aircraft

Such a plan would theoretically bring the best of both worlds. It would protect ordinary citizens, family members, and even players and teammates themselves – because daily testing greatly increases the chance of detecting a case before transmission can occur. It would also allow young, healthy players who don’t feel affected by the virus to carry out the most important parts of their jobs.

Experts point out that it would be more practical in some sports than others. In the NFL, there is no evidence of in-game transmission of the virus from opponent to opponent, which is why the idea of ​​allowing COVID-positive players on the field can even be considered. But, Bachynski said, “I don’t think the potential transmission is zero there.”

Experts would be more comfortable with the plan in socially distanced outdoor sports like golf and tennis than in close-contact indoor sports like hockey and wrestling. Football and basketball tend towards the latter end of the spectrum, while football – where personal contact is very fleeting – would lean a little more towards the former.

However, there are still some concerns. The logistics of separating a COVID-positive player into team settings would be difficult. The science is also still unclear as to whether exercising while asymptomatic but infected could pose any risks. Bachynski and others have said this is “unlikely,” but there is little to no data to confirm or refute this assumption.

Also, experts argue, an unavoidable aspect of COVID protocols in esports is public messaging. “I still firmly believe in the positive image that professional and collegiate sports can project in the community,” said Cameron Wolfe, a professor of infectious diseases at Duke who has advised major sports organizations throughout the pandemic. Just at this moment, when many public health officials are anticipating an Omicron-infused surge in some cases, seemingly riskier policies would paint a problematic picture.

“When community transmission is high and you have a novel variant, this is a time to be more cautious,” Bachynski said. “Both to protect players, but also to set the right tone and send the right message about what we need to prioritize as a society now.”

But as research clarifies patterns of infectivity, Omicron-specific data arrives, and one day infections subside, sport will be able to reduce isolation times in line with science. Eventually, they might even be eliminated. The NFL took a significant step in that direction Thursday. Bachynski estimated that under the new protocols, “a decent percentage” of NFL players could start testing from isolation after five or six days, instead of having to wait the full 10 days.

So the sport will apparently start to live with the virus. You will not do without testing. Instead, they will mitigate the (currently too cautious) consequences for those who test positive.

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