250 NFL Players Would've Been out Due to COVID This Week, NFL Exec Tells Peter King

Tim Daniels@@TimDanielsBRFeatured Columnist IVDecember 20, 2021

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 12: A view of the NFL logo on the field before a game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs on Dec 12, 2021 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

An NFL executive estimated to NBC Sports' Peter King that 250 players would miss their upcoming Week 16 games if the league didn't alter its COVID-19 testing policies.

A league memo sent out Saturday confirmed "fully vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals will no longer be subject to weekly testing," though they would need to pass "stringent symptom screening" in order to enter the team facility, per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network.

"Maybe it will turn out that vaccinated players with Omicron will transmit the virus in practice or in games," Dr. Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer, told King. "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."

The NFL postponed three games—the Las Vegas Raiders vs. Cleveland Browns game was moved to Monday, while Seattle Seahawks vs. Los Angeles Rams and Washington Football Team vs. Philadelphia Eagles matchups were shifted to Tuesday—because of COVID-19 issues.

While the league was forced to adjust its schedule numerous times during the 2020 season, it had the benefit of bye weeks to help move games to different weeks when necessary. The NFL doesn't have that flexibility this year because the first major surge in positive test results, linked to the Omicron variant, didn't happen until after teams' bye weeks had concluded.

So the NFL would prefer to move forward without the need for the creation of a Week 19 or significantly changing the playoff schedule. Based on the NFL exec's prediction to King, the only realistic way to make that happen was to lessen the testing requirements.

Sills told King that "almost all of the positives were Omicron" this past week and the high number of positives led the league to reconsider its protocols:

"It's almost like dealing with a different disease. 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."

Early studies from South Africa have shown Omicron may be a milder variant of COVID-19, but it's appeared to "spread faster" than the previous Delta variant, per NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff and Daniel Wood.

Although U.S. health officials are awaiting more information before agreeing with those initial conclusions, the anecdotal evidence from the NFL appears to back it up amid the sharply rising case numbers.

"I swear to you I'm not sick, at all," a player who recently tested positive after receiving his booster vaccine shot in late November told King. "That's what's pissing me off. Same thing for so many guys on our team."

By reducing the testing regiment for players like that, who've followed the NFL's recommendation to get fully vaccinated, the case numbers should drop and the league should have a better chance to finish its 2021 campaign without a major interruption.

The regular season is scheduled to run through Jan. 9 followed by the playoffs, which culminate with Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13.