The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NFL medical chief Allen Sills on Titans’ coronavirus outbreak, what’s next for the league

Allen Sills is the NFL's chief medical officer. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, spoke to The Washington Post by phone Friday about the novel coronavirus outbreak on the Tennessee Titans. Through Saturday morning’s testing results, 16 members of the Titans organization had tested positive over the course of the week — eight players and eight staff members. The Titans-Steelers game that had been scheduled for Sunday in Nashville was postponed until Oct. 25 in Week 7.

Sills spoke before the news Saturday of New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton testing positive and the league postponing Sunday’s Patriots-Chiefs game in Kansas City, Mo., until Monday or Tuesday.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You said in the offseason there will be positive tests. Yet you went through training camp and the first three weeks of the season with things going well. What was your reaction to the outbreak on the Titans?

I think this is something we’ve been preparing for from the very beginning of our preparations. As we’ve said repeatedly, we expect to have new positive cases. No matter how careful everyone is or how stringent our protocols are, as long as this disease remains endemic in our society, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to avoid any new positive cases.

So that’s why our focus has never been on elimination of the virus because we just know that’s medically impossible. Instead, we’ve focused on mitigation, which means when we do have a positive case that we try as best possible to prevent spread within any of our team communities or our league as a whole.

As you went through the process that led to the closing of the Titans’ team facility and the postponement of their game, what criteria were used?

The health and safety has been the top priority at every point. I think that’s an important point to underscore, that there was never top priority assigned to anything about schedule or competition. It was all about what is the safest possible outcome. And starting with [Commissioner Roger Goodell] to me directly, he wanted this entire process to be very much led by creating the safest possible environment for everyone.

And along those lines, what we looked to, it’s not just the total number of infections but who are the individuals that are being infected? What’s the tempo of those infections, meaning how are they distributed over time? And then also importantly, how many close contacts that each of them had, which could imply further spread within the team.

So I think you have to account for all of those variables. And that’s why each of these situations is unique to some degree. We said this from the start: It’s very difficult to put a policy on the books that says, “Well, if we get this many infections, then that reaches a threshold of a shutdown of a team or cancellation of a game,” because there’s simply more variables that go into it.”

The NFL has its first coronavirus outbreak. Here’s how it has responded.

How many close contacts did you end up dealing with, for both the Titans and the Vikings from their game Sunday?

I’ll say that our data from the game did not show any what we would deem close contacts between the two teams, which we were reassured by. But of course, we all recognize that close contacts is a broad concept. You can measure them in terms of time and distance. But you also have to recognize that if someone’s infected and they have a really high-intensity exposure, they can infect someone in even a shorter period of time.

What’s your information about the cases of those in the Titans organization who tested positive?

I would just say at this point that there are some symptomatic individuals but fortunately to this point they have been relatively mild symptoms and no one has required more intensive medical care.

What have you been able to determine about the origins of the Titans’ outbreak?

We’re still working through that, and that is absolutely a goal of ours. In addition to providing the best care for everyone that’s infected, we obviously want to learn all that we can for the benefit of everyone. I think the Titans and the Vikings, also, have been incredibly cooperative in that regard because they want the information as well. How can we all work to prevent anything like this from occurring again?

So we’re working through all that data. There are a lot of complexities to that. As anyone in medicine will tell you, contact tracing and going back and looking at outbreaks, you have to consider a lot of variables of exposure of individuals and also time and other factors that could come into play. We are also looking at genomic sequencing, meaning that we’ll be able to look at the exact strains of the virus in all the positive samples. And that will also help inform those efforts.

You’ve said consistently that you are cautiously optimistic about the NFL getting through this season. Has that changed based on this incident?

I think I remain still cautiously optimistic as we move forward. We’ve said consistently throughout that this is going to be very difficult. And we’ve also said that we expect to have positive cases. … We certainly hope and pray that it never happens, but we’re prepared when it does. And I think that we will learn and get better from this set of circumstances. We’ll learn additional measures that we can take to keep everyone safe. And I think that this will also serve as a reminder to everyone how vigilant we have to be and how difficult this is.

We’ve said throughout that this takes a sustained daily effort on the part of all players, coaches and staff to try to minimize risk for everyone. And I think that this situation has illustrated that point.