The NFL will stop mandating weekly COVID-19 tests for asymptomatic vaccinated players, according to memos distributed Saturday that described a major shift in the league's approach to the pandemic.
The new protocols, which take effect next week, could allow the virus to spread undetected through locker rooms, and could increase opportunities for infected but otherwise healthy players to participate in games.
The NFL and NFLPA announced the "more targeted testing plan" in a statement, along with "more flexibility" for players "to attend meetings virtually" and opportunities for "high-risk players" to opt out of the remainder of the season.
The revised NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols will end regular weekly testing of asymptomatic, fully vaccinated individuals. A major shift amidst the emergence of the Omicron variant and over 150 (mostly asymptomatic) players testing positive this past week.
From today’s memo: pic.twitter.com/9uMn92dfNp
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) December 18, 2021
The changes come two days after the NFL eased its return-to-play protocol for players who test positive, one day after three games were postponed, and at the end of a week in which the virus sent over 100 players to the league's reserve/COVID-19 list.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Saturday memo, however, that "roughly two-thirds" of cases among NFL players and staff this week have been asymptomatic, while "most of the remaining individuals have only mild symptoms."
Those facts, amid what NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills called "a new phase of the pandemic," led to Saturday's change, which some experts believe endangers not only players themselves but their family members and people they come into contact with away from football.
The move further incentivizes vaccination, which experts widely believe to be a sports league's biggest weapon in battles against the pandemic. (Unvaccinated players will continue to test daily.) But new variants of the virus, including the Omicron variant, have been spread to and by vaccinated players and coaches. The new protocols, sports epidemiologist Zach Binney said in text messages Saturday, represent the NFL "basically announcing that they're giving up on infection control."
"These new protocols will result in everyone in the NFL coming into contact with COVID," Binney said. "The hope is if you're vaccinated — and especially if you're boosted — you'll be able to fight off the virus with no or mild symptoms. But unless you're boosted it's quite likely you'll contract the virus and perhaps spread it to others, as well."
The protocols shift responsibility for a given person's health and safety from the collective to the individual. Players will "retain the option to attend meetings virtually and wear a mask within the facility," Goodell wrote in his memo. Players and their families will also be given access to daily testing. Teams will even distribute at-home tests and allow players to self-report positives — either their own or a family member's.
But without a requirement, many players — including some who feel the NFL should do away with COVID-19 protocols altogether — will have incentive to decline testing, because a positive test would rule them out of games.
Many of those players, even when infected, feel well enough to play. Sills said earlier this week that many of the 100-plus who've tested positive this week would not have even sought a test based on symptoms. Washington Football Team doctor Tony Casolaro told reporters Saturday that of his team's 23 players who tested positive this week, only two would have been held out of practice solely based on symptoms.
Some experts caution that, although evidence among young, healthy, vaccinated people suggests little susceptibility to severe disease, it does not suggest zero risk. "We still get a small percentage of athletes who develop long-COVID symptoms," Cameron Wolfe, a Duke infectious disease professor who has advised major sports organizations, said earlier this week. Professional athletes in several sports have suffered from the effects of COVID weeks and months after contracting it.
For those unwilling to take that risk, or pass it on to loved ones, the NFL on Saturday introduced a new opt-out clause. Players with certain conditions that create "higher risk" related to COVID-19 have until 2 p.m. Monday to, if they choose, opt out of the remainder of the 2021 season. They will not be paid and cannot reverse the decision.
Under the new protocols, meanwhile, players will be subject to enhanced daily symptom screenings. Any player who reports or exhibits symptoms will be isolated and tested immediately. It's unclear, though, how or whether team doctors will enforce or incentivize self-reporting.
NFL doctors can also select certain players, position groups or "staff cohorts" for "strategic, targeted spot testing." That selective testing will be designed to prevent outbreaks, or based on contact tracing on a case-by-case basis. The exact procedure for the "targeted testing" program has not yet been finalized, Sills said, but he assured that it would be led by medical experts and not based on performance.
“We're trying to test smarter," Sills said.
The NFL has already mandated booster shots for top-tier staffers. On Saturday, it once again encouraged boosters but stopped short of mandating vaccination for players. The new protocols do not require boosters for a player to be considered vaccinated and exempt from mandatory regular testing.
The updated protocols will go into effect after this weekend's games. Beginning the following week, the NFL will introduce stricter limits on the "essential football personnel" permitted in team facilities.
Whether some of the more intensive protocols implemented earlier this week — which include mandatory masking indoors and limits on in-person gatherings — will stay in place throughout the rest of the season remains to be determined.
"In many respects, Omicron appears to be a very different illness from the one that we first confronted in the spring of 2020," Goodell said in his memo. As the league heads into 2022, it's going to treat it like one.