There are now over 100 NFL players sidelined by COVID-19. One hockey team alone has had 30 cases. One NBA team has 10 players, more than half its roster, in “health and safety protocols.” In England, meanwhile, nine Premier League games have been postponed, and more could follow. Clubs are reportedly pushing for a temporary shutdown amid widespread outbreaks across the sports world unlike any it has seen before.

The Omicron variant has been detected in multiple leagues, and spawned what NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills called “a new phase of the pandemic.” League officials have spent the week trying to figure out how to confront it. “The dynamics of the pandemic have changed for us,” Sills said Wednesday. “And I think that’s going to cause us to challenge some of our previous assumptions and also update our strategies and our solutions.”

Among the proposed solutions were everything from daily testing to, reportedly, no testing for players who’ve received booster shots.

On Thursday, the NFL announced an initial round of changes that include tweaks to the return-to-play protocol for COVID-positive players. It wasn’t the overhaul that some believe will eventually be necessary as sports learn to live with a virus that, as Giants owner John Mara said, “seems like it’s never going away.”

The NFL’s tweaks were, however, what some experts see as an initial step toward a new approach across sports. It could someday include a willingness to let athletes play through COVID. It will, at the very least, involve finding expedited routes back to fields and courts after positive tests.

Experts: Leagues could consider greater changes than NFL made

Throughout the 2021 season, NFL protocols have required any player who tested positive — even those who were asymptomatic and vaccinated — to isolate either for 10 days or until they tested negative on two consecutive days. On Thursday, the NFL amended the latter option. In a memo to team executives and medical personnel, it outlined new protocols that could allow a player to return after one day of tests that either come back negative or reveal that the player’s viral load, a measure of infectiousness, has cleared a certain threshold.

The memo arrived a couple hours after multiple experts suggested to Yahoo Sports that the NFL and other sports leagues could consider even greater changes.

 

Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, mentioned that one negative antigen test could be sufficient to clear a player. Antigen tests are less sensitive than PCR tests, which the NFL has used. They’d still ensure that nobody steps on the field with “a super high viral load,” as Binney said, but would allow players who are significantly less contagious to return.

Kathleen Bachynski, an epidemiologist at Muhlenberg College, suggested that leagues could adopt an adjacent strategy. With the Delta variant, she noted, “the highest risk of transmission is really the couple days before and the couple days after [infected people] either show symptoms or are first testing positive.” She pointed out that in South Africa, in line with this evidence, officials have advocated for halving isolation periods from 10 days to five for healthcare workers amid a dire shortage. Their reasoning, obviously, is far more serious than anything in sports, but the science that supports it is similar.

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