How NFL is responding to Omicron variant of COVID-19 as positives pile up

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Twenty days ago, the United States experienced the first case of Omicron. A week ago, NFL cognoscenti, just beginning to see the Covid testing rate increasing, were still adamant no games would be moved or postponed. Four days after that, three games were moved, culminating a week in which 160 positive tests happened. “I don’t think we could have foreseen the magnitude of that increase and how rapidly Omicron would really take over and essentially change the entire game plan,” the NFL’s medical director, Allen Sills, told me Saturday night. “There was some anticipation, but it’s a bit like preparing for a hurricane. You take all the preparations you think you can and then you wait, and then you see how it actually is … Out of the first batch that we’ve been able to test, almost all of the positives were Omicron.”

Sills is pragmatic and studious, and he’s spoken confidently about the virus in the 21 months that it’s plagued the NFL. But I could hear in his voice Saturday night that this one’s got him stumped a bit. “It’s almost like dealing with a different disease,” he said. “I think it’s going to require us to toss out our old game plan and bring a new game plan to bear because we’re dealing with a very different opponent. The most striking thing is the transmissibility and just how quickly it has spread—coming from basically being an unknown entity to now reflecting almost all the cases we’re seeing in a week’s time. It’s unprecedented.”

The league and players agreed to do something counterintuitive this week. They’re going to stop regular testing of players, and begin a “targeted” testing program, focused on players and staff who exhibit symptoms or self-report them. At first glance—and second, too—it seems the league doesn’t want to catch people who test positive for Omicron, which purportedly has been milder in nature than other variants. One club executive, defending the league’s move to cut down regular testing, said if testing was done this week, with the wildfire-type growth of the variant across the country, “250 players would test positive and would be out.”

“If they are positive,” I asked Sills, “shouldn’t they be out?”

“Maybe it will turn out that vaccinated players with Omicron will transmit the virus in practice or in games,” Sills said. “If so, the NFL’s got to change, fast. But so far, there’s zero indication the virus is transmitted on the field. And the vast majority of players aren’t sick at all. I still think players who aren’t feeling well will self-report. They don’t want to get their teammates sick.”

Sills said on a league conference call Saturday that what the league will do starting this week is what practicing doctors (which he is) do now. They don’t routinely test asymptomatic, well-feeling people. He said all but two of the WFT positive-testing players felt fine and had no symptoms.

But there’s so much we don’t know yet about the Omicron variant. If the transmissibility goes wild and sickens people worse than it appears this variant will, the NFL will look like a greedy business that put jamming through the schedule over potential impact on public health. Now that the lack of testing is a done deal, the NFL has to be sure it pivots the moment Omicron gets more dire than it appears now.

For now, I believe the league did the right thing Friday in pushing Raiders-Browns to Monday, and WFT-Philadelphia and Seattle-Rams to Tuesday. At the time the games were moved, the Rams, WFT and Cleveland had 83 player positives, combined, and there was (still is) no guarantee things wouldn’t get worse. Anyone angry about how “unfair” this is to football balance … take a breath. Life intrudes sometimes, the same way it did in the weird start-and-stop-and-start 2020 season. “This is what our planet, country, league, other leagues, schools, everyone, has been dealing with for a while,” Rams GM Les Snead texted to me Sunday afternoon. “This is science, in a nutshell.”

WFT coach Ron Rivera said Sunday he spent lots more time on roster-fortification than coaching during the week. “We spent hours scanning everyone’s practice squad and on the players we’d worked out since training camp,” Rivera told me. “Because we potentially had our top two quarterbacks out with Covid, it was important to find out who fit us. And Garrett Gilbert was on New England’s practice squad. He’d played for Dallas last year and we liked what we saw, and we thought he could fit our offense well. He might have to play in the ballgame Tuesday night in Philadelphia.”

Rivera might have Taylor Heinicke or Kyle Allen back if they test negative before dusk Tuesday in Philly. If they don’t, it’s your team, Garrett Gilbert.

“The last two years, this has gotten wearisome,” Rivera admitted. “Sometimes you get a ‘Now what?’ feeling. But let’s face it. It’s doesn’t look like this is going away anytime soon. We might have to take a booster every year to stay ahead of it.”

The NFL will be on trial here, now that it’s not going to test regularly. All that’s at stake is the completion of the 2021 season.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column