New COVID-19 protocols to feature targeted testing of fully vaccinated players, staff

In response to a recent surge of COVID-19 cases and the new Omicron variant of the virus, the NFL and NFLPA announced on Saturday the implementation of enhanced COVID protocols that includes changes to the testing cadence for fully vaccinated, asymptomatic players and staff.

The two parties issued the following statement regarding the changes:

​"The NFL and NFLPA have been engaged with our medical advisors to address the emergence of the new Omicron variant and how to stop the spread to ensure we keep everyone safe and complete the remainder of the season responsibly. The intensive protocols implemented last week and the rescheduling of three games were designed to stop the transmission of the virus and play this week's games safely. After this weekend's games, we have agreed to put into place a new set of protocols, which will include a more targeted testing plan, more flexibility for players to attend meetings virtually and also a high-risk player opt-out for the remainder of the season."

A memo, obtained by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, sent to all 32 teams states that fully vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals will no longer be subject to weekly testing. If a fully vaccinated player or staff member reports symptoms that person will immediately be isolated and tested, and will not be permitted to interact with any player or tiered staff until producing a negative test.

All players and tiered staff will be subject to "stringent symptom screening" prior to entering a team facility each day before being permitted to enter in order to ensure any symptomatic individual will be tested prior to entering.

Fully vaccinated players and tiered staff will be subject to "strategic, targeted spot testing as directed by the NFL Chief Medical Officer [Dr. Allen Sills].

"Such testing will include, without limitation, sample selection based on position group and staff cohorts. The NFL CMO will notify each club ICO as to which individuals will be required to test each week. If COVID infections are identified, the NFL and NFLPA medical experts will determine additional mitigation efforts, which may include, additional testing," the memo states.

The memo also states that high-risk players who wish to opt out for the remainder of the season will have the option to do so until 2 p.m. ET on Monday.

All players may also volunteer for additional testing at team facilities. Players who are not fully vaccinated are still subject to daily testing.

"Medical information strongly indicates that this variant is significantly more contagious but possibly less severe than prior variants, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a Saturday memo, obtained by NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. "Our experience with the Omicron variant is fully consistent with this expectation – while more players and staff are testing positive, roughly two-thirds of those individuals are asymptomatic, most of the remaining individuals have only mild symptoms, and the virus appears to clear positive individuals more rapidly than was true with the Delta and other variants. In many respects, Omicron appears to be a very different illness from the one we first confronted in the spring of 2020."

Goodell continued: "The NFL and NFLPA medical teams believe that this comprehensive approach to testing, which mirrors public health recommendations and best practices employed in healthcare, offers the best opportunity for identifying and treating cases promptly and avoiding spread within the facility."

Goodell also stated that the league and the players union believe the COVID-19 booster shots for eligible players are an important aspect of combating COVID-19, and they plan to continue to educate players on the benefits of receiving a booster shot. The league previously announced that tier 1 and tier 2 staff are required to receiver a booster shot by Dec. 27.

"In the meantime, we will continue to monitor medical and public health developments, both generally and at each club, and be prepared to adjust protocols further as conditions warrant, including to introduce further flexibility based on medical considerations," Goodell wrote. "We will advise all clubs promptly of any agreed-upon modifications to the protocols as the season continues."

News of the enhanced protocols comes a day after the NFL postponed three Week 15 games due to COVID outbreaks amongst the Cleveland Browns, Washington Football Team and Los Angeles Rams.

Sills told reporters Saturday that the data currently suggests that they have a handle on the outbreaks for Washington, the Browns and the Rams and the belief is the rescheduled games will be able to go on as scheduled.