Mass. General doctor: NFL needs independent oversight for coronavirus protocols

If the NFL is going to survive the season without a shutdown due to COVID-19, they need to start treating infected players the way hospitals treat infected patients, said Dr. Mark Siedner, an infectious disease clinician and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As the Patriots and Tennessee Titans get back to the field after extended layoffs due to coronavirus outbreaks, Siedner warned that it’s gut-check time for the NFL.

“When you have an outbreak, you have to play by the rules,” he said.

Infected people need to be isolated and quarantined for a minimum 14 days, Siedner said. The data suggests infected people are contagious for 10 days or longer, depending on whether or not the infection is severe.

“Which means if someone gets infected on a Thursday or Friday, they should miss two games,” Siedner said. “There shouldn’t be too many reasons the league should violate that. If you’re another player exposed to another player who is infected, you should be quarantined for two weeks.”

The NFL is now doing daily testing for its players and staff, but it’s not a perfect system.

“Even with daily testing, and especially with the rapid antigen tests the NFL is using, those are not perfect tests,” the doctor said. “We would not have someone go to the hospital within 14 days because the risk is so high.

“As painful it is, the NFL needs to have these basic things covered or a small outbreak becomes a large outbreak.”

The issue is that not everyone infected in the NFL is being isolated and quarantined for 14 days. The official NFL rule is that players who test positive but don’t experience symptoms can return as soon as they produce consecutive negative tests separated by 24 hours and remain asymptomatic, or a flat 10 days since the initial positive.

That leaves multiple days where the infected player could be back on the field and still contagious.

“If you don’t do a bubble, you need rules to restrict interactions because every time a single person violates those, they really do put other teams and coaches and players in risk,” Siedner said. “The mask-wearing, physical distancing, restrictions on interactions — those are critical.”

The NFL modeled its 10-day waiting period for infected folks based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which say individuals without symptoms must wait 10 days after they tested positive before ending their self-isolation period.

One key issue, the expert says, is that sports leagues, like big businesses and government, have financial interests that are often overriding the public health interests.

Siedner thinks the best way to safely move forward with an NFL season is to have an independent body governing the COVID protocols.

“The NFL, MLB and NBA -— they don’t get a free pass with the pandemic,” he said. “In so many examples recently, the virus doesn’t care who you are, it’s going to transmit the way it wants to. Leadership needs to weigh the risks and benefits, put in the best procedures they can and ask if that’s enough. I think the real challenge I see with organizations like the NFL, and there are a lot of parallels with other things like businesses and college campuses, the people making those decisions are also affected by the bottom line.

“The question is, where does the financial benefit outweigh the health risks? And do we have independent people making those decisions to make sure the first thing we have to worry about is the safety of the players and their families and coaches and everyone else that’s interacted with them? It’s critical someone is independently thinking about those things and not worried about the bottom line.”

Siedner said he’s generally in favor of sports being played, even on a local and youth level, but it needs to be done with unbiased thought.

“Sometimes politics and infectious diseases are sometimes at odds, although I’m not sure they need to be, but they can be seen at odds,” he said. “The issue happens when an independent oversight body is not able to make recommendations that are acted upon. If the NFL comes up with a safety plan for COVID and it’s followed, there should be a redline that can be crossed, a certain number of players infected or a severe infection in a coach, ongoing transmission despite the efforts. And if that line is crossed, they need a shutdown plan.

“That’s when people get in trouble, when they don’t allow the science and public health to take precedence over scientists and independent interest. … They need to make sure there is someone who can make these calls, including things like cancellations of games, or potentially even worse.”

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