Saturday's coronavirus test scare didn't produce positives, but it illustrates...

Saturday's coronavirus test scare didn't produce positives, but it illustrates just how quick NFL games could be postponed if there is an outbreak.  Credit: Brad Penner

All things considered, the NFL has been remarkably fortunate to get this far without any major interruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But then came a spate of positive tests from a New Jersey lab to offer a reminder of just how fragile things can be.

Nearly all those tests turned out to be false positives, but not before several teams, including the Jets, Browns, Vikings and Bears, had to call off some activities before subsequent tests came back negative. The Jets had 10 false positives, according to coach Adam Gase, and a walk-through was canceled Saturday night. Once follow-up tests revealed there were actually no positive cases, practice was held as scheduled on Sunday.

Until this weekend, it had been mostly smooth sailing in the NFL, where players, coaches and other essential employees are tested daily. Even after Eagles coach Doug Pederson tested positive for coronavirus earlier this month, he was quarantined at home while the team continued practicing. The NFL’s medical director, Dr. Allen Sills, said Wednesday that the positivity rate is remarkably low.

“In the last 15 days with over 42,000 tests, really low rates of positives,” Sills said on a conference call. “Very low numbers of players on COVID-IR, which shows teams are doing a great job.”

The NFL’s most recent numbers indicate that just 0.46% of all personnel, players, coaches and staff tested positive, with a 0.81 positivity rate among players. Among 2,840 players tested at the start of training camp, 53 tested positive.

But all it takes is one outbreak on one team to begin to turn the league upside down, especially with games fast approaching. The regular season begins Sept. 10, when the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs host the Texans in Kansas City.

There is no bubble in football like there is with the NBA and NHL, which have had tremendous success resuming their respective seasons and playoff tournaments. Major League Baseball has already seen several postponements during a truncated 60-game season, including this weekend’s Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets that was put off because of two positive cases reported among the Mets, including one player.

The NFL faces an even greater challenge, since it is attempting to play a full 16-game regular season, followed by the playoffs. The NFL’s once-a-week format means that postponing games could easily result in a shortened season, with the league perhaps reserving a time later in the year to make up games that might not be played due to a potential COVID-19 outbreak on one or more teams.

The league does have strict testing guidelines for games, and even one or two positive tests the day before games likely wouldn’t be enough to result in a postponement. But if there were double-digit positive tests similar to what happened over the weekend, the potential for interruptions is there. The players whose results came back with false positives were lucky this time, and the league will certainly try and correct the errors moving forward.

“We are working with our testing partner BioReference, to investigate these results, while the clubs work to confirm or rule out the positive tests,” the league said in a statement Sunday. “Clubs are taking immediate precautionary measures as outlined in the NFL-NFLPA’s health and safety protocols to include contract tracing, isolation of individuals and temporarily adjusting the schedule, where appropriate. The other laboratories used for NFL testing have not had similar results.”

The Jets, Browns and Bears went ahead with their regular practices Sunday, but the Vikings held out eight players, one coach and three staff members out of an abundance of caution.

“If these all turn out negative, then there was a problem at the lab,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “Obviously if they’re positive, then there might be a problem with the things that we’re doing or other teams are doing or whatever.”

There is a stunningly high degree of difficulty in staging an entire football season in a pandemic, and the league can take some solace in how well things have gone so far. Especially in a sport where social distancing is impossible. But as Saturday’s testing episode showed, things can change very quickly.

Fortunately for the NFL, the spate of false positives turned out to be a false alarm.

Hopefully there won’t be a full-blown crisis in the days and weeks ahead.


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