SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Mackenzie Salmon goes around the league and breaks down all the biggest story lines from Week 12 in the NFL.
Just 20 miles or so from the facility where the Baltimore Ravens sparked a raging COVID-19 outbreak, some of the best epidemiologists, infectious disease experts and public health scholars in the country have spent months offering the best possible guidance to help America beat the pandemic.
So when you see the Ravens and the NFL postpone their game against Pittsburgh Steelers for a third time to Wednesday after nine straight days of positive tests in their organization, it almost looks like a cross-town rivalry with Johns Hopkins University, where you won’t find a lot of people who think any of this is a good idea.
“I think it’s insane,” said Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist and member of the Infectious Disease Dynamics group at Johns Hopkins. “Clearly there’s a lot of ongoing transmission within the organization, there are likely people who are yet to test positive, and it’s really no guarantee going into (this week’s) game that there will be nobody infectious on the field. It’s alarming the NFL is continuing to push forward. Their chief medical officer had said that as long as there was no evidence of ongoing transmission, the games would continue. But there is clear evidence of it, so I can’t understand why they’re continuing to press forward and I can’t understand why they’re putting the health and safety of their players at risk as well as the local community.”
The NFL has held things together remarkably well to this point, not needing to make the kinds of adjustments to the schedule that would add a week to the regular season. Given how close they are to the finish line, with just five weeks remaining before the playoffs, it’s understandable that the NFL wants to push as hard as it can to get there on time and not have to create a Week 18.
The Ravens’ game against the Steelers has been pushed to Wednesday. (Photo: Mitchell Layton, USA TODAY Sports)
But the Ravens situation is clearly dire, with 21 players on the COVID-19 reserve list and an outbreak that clearly hasn’t been contained. And even if the tests had come back clean on Monday, experts in this field say that doesn’t mean the team has the virus under control. In order to do that, you’d need to have a lot of people go into the CDC-recommended quarantine period of 14 days rather than just rely on one day of testing.
“You’d hope there would be an inclination to comply with public health recommendations and model good behavior because the rest of the country is watching,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and associate professor of epidemiology. “My worry is they feel like using testing will guarantee safety of the players who test negative that day, but we’ve seen in other circumstances the folly of a test-only approach. They provide information but they don’t ensure safety and sometimes that information is wrong.”
Justin Lessler, also an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, said if an outbreak of the magnitude the Ravens are dealing with occurred at a different type of business — say, a restaurant or bar — the state would “almost certainly step in and shut it down.” But he also acknowledged that at this point, the health risk is mostly from team to team and not as much the general public health interest.
But that could be a problem for the NFL, too.
“Certainly from the perspective of avoiding transmission, it’s not the best idea (to play),” Lessler said. “I think that they have very close contact and are breathing very hard so if anyone is infected there’s ample opportunity for spread in this situation. I do think, though, it’s more a lot of this is driven by the virus being widespread in the community and the NFL isn’t doing any sort of bubble or anything like that to try to really protect the players, and as long as you do that it’s very hard to keep the virus out of that community.”
In all of his public comments when teams have positive tests, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills has said that games will be played when there’s no longer evidence of ongoing transmission within a team. But what troubles Grabowski is that in the Ravens’ situation, one day of negative tests does not establish that evidence when you’ve had that many infections and nine straight days of at least one person testing positive.
“It just makes no sense,” she said. “Even from a financial perspective I can’t see how ultimately having huge outbreaks among two of the NFL’s best teams is good for anybody in the long run. So I think it makes sense to contain outbreaks and the NFL needs to think about doing something different. What they’re doing to prevent transmission isn’t working, and they should probably re-evaluate their plans. I think they need to do a deep dive into where things are going wrong.”
And it’s only going to get harder given the nationwide trends and the light at the end of the tunnel coming into view for many players, particularly those on teams that aren’t going to make the playoffs, who have had to be extremely careful for months and months about where they go and who they are around.
But the Ravens situation is particularly problematic given the large number of people affected and the clear evidence that they haven’t broken the chain of transmission. We all know why the NFL wants them to play on Wednesday. It’s just as obvious, though, that they shouldn’t.