NFL chief medical officer explains why league wants players to mask up on sidelines


(RADIO.COM Sports) The days leading up to the start of Week 9 haven't been overly promising in terms of the NFL's ability to evade the coronavirus pandemic. Simply put, it hasn't done so.

The 49ers and Packers both had players test positive as late as Wednesday — though one seems to have been a false-positive — but they're set to play Thursday night. Seven Ravens were placed on the COVID-19/reserve list. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list. The Texans, Bears and Eagles announced positive player tests Thursday. Staff members of the Colts and Chiefs tested positive as well. There's a whole lot of COVID-19 going around, and there's a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding the best course of action going forward. The fact that the 49ers and Packers are still slated to compete on Thursday night has some fans uneasy.

But NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills remains calm, cool and collected, sharing the reasoning behind the league's decision to go forward with the game with writer Judy Battista.

"We did the same thing in this case that we always do," Sills said. "Which is that we go through our contact-tracing efforts, we try to identify high-risk contacts and then we look at the total number of positive cases we have and then also the high-risk contacts. And from that, we then generate an idea about whether we think there's ongoing transmission within the team.

"In both of these cases, with these two teams, we felt like we had a really good handle on the situation. There were no additional positive tests today, and so that gave us confidence in moving forward."

For many of the coronavirus cases that have impacted players and teams this week, the illness was believed to have been picked up in a non-football environment. For instance, Broncos president John Elway and CEO Joe Ellis both tested positive for coronavirus, but the team said that it's "confident that these cases originated independently outside team facilities." Outside of being careful and reminding members of NFL teams to act appropriately during the pandemic, there's not much you can do about that.

However, the league can do more in regards to preventing transmission while on the field. The NFL sent out a memo recently stressing the importance of not only wearing a mask when out and about but also on the sidelines and in the locker room in response to recent events.

Sills commented on the rationale behind this memo in his discussion with Battista.

"We had two cases this week where we had an individual who ended up testing positive on game day and then we had to go back and do the contact tracing," Sills said. "And as we did that, we realized that there is a lot of vulnerability on game day, as we would expect. When players are together and they're unmasked, when you start to look at the cumulative amount of contact — again, that contact's not occurring out on the field ... but it's standing or sitting on the bench areas, it's in the locker room and it's in those places off the field.

"If we have a new individual come in who is positive, what can we do to eliminate that number of high-risk contacts? And obviously, mask-wearing is a really important mitigation strategy."

As some of the above examples show, the high-risk contact tracing can lead to an entire positional group becoming desolated. The Packers' running back group, for instance, is dealing with an injury to Aaron Jones that will potentially hold him out, a positive COVID-19 test for A.J. Dillon and a reserve/COVID-19 designation for Jamaal Williams due to his "high-risk close contact" label.

Hopefully, everyone wearing masks on the sidelines can help prevent instances like this from reoccurring.

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