In preparation for Super Bowl, CDC says NFL's COVID-19 safety protocols are effective

Abby Haglage
·4 min read

With the 2021 Super Bowl less than two weeks away, the NFL’s latest season is nearing its end. But before it does, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is detailing how the league successfully implemented mitigation strategies to limit COVID-19 outbreaks — and suggesting that other organizations follow suit.

Released Monday, the report was a collaboration between the CDC and the NFL COVID-19 Advisory and Operational Team and covers the NFL’s safety protocols from Aug. 9 through Nov. 21. During that time, more than 600,000 PCR tests were performed on roughly 11,400 players and staff members, yielding 329 positive COVID-19 tests.

Two members of the Tennessee Titans celebrate after defeating the Baltimore Ravens on November 22, 2020. The team experienced a major outbreak in October that led the NFL to escalate precautions. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Members of the Tennessee Titans celebrate after defeating the Baltimore Ravens in November 2020. The team experienced a major COVID-19 outbreak in October that led the NFL to escalate precautions. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The CDC categorizes the initial precautions the league took as “standard protocol,” which included “mandatory masking; physical distancing; frequent hand-washing; facility disinfection; restricted facility access; and regular, frequent testing of players and staff members.” On top of these, the league required players to wear “proximity devices” when in club facilities in order to track interactions among individuals.

The devices — first utilized by the NBA — are known as “SafeZone tags” and are made by a German-based performance tracking company called Kinexon. The wearable devices rely on a sensor to measure the “distance and duration of contact” between two individuals, which ensures that contact tracing can be accurately performed in the event of a positive case.

The CDC released a report on Monday detailing successful mitigation strategies within the NFL, including strict mask requirements and quarantining high-risk contacts. (Image: CDC)
The CDC released a report on Monday detailing successful mitigation strategies within the NFL, including strict mask requirements and quarantining high-risk contacts. (Image: CDC)

The CDC says that these standard protocols from the NFL were initially sufficient, leading to fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases per week from early August to late September. But the NFL was required to make leaguewide changes following 41 positive COVID-19 cases between Sept. 27 and Oct. 10. More than half of these were identified within the Tennessee Titans franchise, forcing it to temporarily shut down its facilities.

The cluster of cases prompted the NFL to create a “seven-day intensive protocol” in the event of a positive case, which required teams mandate mask-wearing during practice, distribute grab-and-go meals only, discourage locker room use and ban in-person contact between players outside the facilities.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says the contact tracing that the league performed was critically important — and that technology can enhance it. “It’s helpful to have some way to make contact tracing easier,” Adalja tells Yahoo Life. “And so [the wearables] are one thing that eases the work of a contact tracer because you’ve got all of that data that’s being supported.”

The CDC describes contact tracing as “a core disease control measure” that involves “working with a patient (symptomatic and asymptomatic) who has been diagnosed with an infectious disease to identify and provide support to people (contacts) who may have been infected through exposure to the patient.” By tracking the individuals who have come in contact with the infected person, officials are able to stop further transmission and prevent a major outbreak.

While the NFL used top-of-the-line technology, the CDC notes that other places can take lessons from its success. “Although the protocols implemented by the NFL were resource-intensive, strategies such as accounting for specific characteristics of the close contact, in addition to time and duration, and creation of an intensive protocol are applicable to other settings, including essential workplaces, long-term care facilities, and schools,” the CDC notes.

Adalja agrees, noting that there are more accessible versions of this technology that could be utilized. “There are other phone apps that are similar to this, where they are looking for exposures ... if your phone is near somebody else's phone,” he says. “Any of these technological solutions that help make a contact research job better, those are all good things.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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