NFL updates COVID-19 protocols to allow for quicker return from quarantine for vaccinated individuals

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country and the league, the NFL is altering its health and safety protocols.

The league announced Thursday that it has updated COVID-19 protocols to "address the increase in cases and the advent of the Omicron variant."

"Effective immediately, all clubs will implement preventative measures that have proven effective: masking regardless of vaccination status, remote or outdoor meetings, eliminating in-person meals, and no outside visitors while on team travel," the league said in a statement. "We will continue to strongly encourage the booster shots as the most effective protection. Finally, and based on expert advice, we will adjust the return-to-participation requirements for those who have recovered from COVID-19.

"All of these changes are grounded in our data and science-backed approach, with safety our number-one goal for the entire NFL community."

Included in the updated protocols are changes to how fully vaccinated players can "test out" of COVID-19 protocols and return from quarantine quicker. The NFL provided three testing options for a fully vaccinated individual to return provided he or she is asymptomatic for at least 24 hours. In the updated protocols, an individual's return from quarantine is possible as soon as the day after his or her initial positive test.

Fully vaccinated individuals will continue to test weekly and unvaccinated individuals daily.

The updated protocols also address interaction between coaches, players and others in team facilities. They prohibit in-person meetings for Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals (including coaches and players) unless they are held outdoors or in the practice bubble, with all individuals physically distanced.

All players and staff are now required to wear masks when indoors at the club facility, including in the weight room, regardless of vaccination status. Masks, however, will not be required outdoors or during practices and/or walk-throughs conducted in the practice bubble.

No more than 15 players may work out in a single weight room at one time, regardless of vaccination status, and staff and players will no longer be permitted to eat together, regardless of vaccination status.

There are also greater restrictions on activity outside of the team facility. Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 staff and players will be prohibited from public appearances or team- or player-organized charity events and gathering in groups of more than three individuals outside of the facility. Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff and players will also be prohibited from engaging in what is considered "High Risk COVID Conduct," as outlined in the league's Nov. 9 protocols.

The NFL's memo also says there "likely" will be a reduction in the number of people allowed in Tier 1, Tier 2, etc., which happened toward the end of last season as well.

NFL Network's Judy Battista reported Wednesday that around 100 players recently tested positive for the virus over a three-day span, and the number of players placed on the COVID-19 list continued to climb Thursday. Among notable players to land on the COVID list this week: Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Chargers rookie offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett and Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson.

Coaches also have been affected, as all three Bears coordinators entered protocol Thursday and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive Wednesday.

Battista noted that a large portion of players testing positive are asymptomatic and the others have reported very mild symptoms, which prompted a reevaluation of the league's COVID rules at the Winter League Meeting this week.

Thursday's announcement is not the first move made by the NFL to react to this latest surge in cases. On Monday, the NFL mandated all Tier 1 and 2 personnel "who have previously been vaccinated and are eligible under [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, must receive a booster shot" by Dec. 27, as announced in a memo obtained by NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. The mandate does not include players.

The surge in cases around the league was a central talking point among owners at the Winter League Meeting this week.

"It seems like it's never going away," Giants owner John Mara said of the virus Wednesday.

"At some point, you feel like you are fighting a ghost," Falcons owner Arthur Blank mused. "You don't know where to swing."

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