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NFL teams with CDC on a paper explaining what it learned about containing the coronavirus

Atlanta Falcons players wear masks while on the sideline during a Jan. 3 game in Tampa. (Jason Behnken/AP)
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Medical leaders of the NFL and the NFL Players Association teamed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release a jointly written scientific paper detailing the lessons from the league’s coronavirus protocols and operations during its nearly completed season that could be applied beyond football.

“We hope that our experience will have benefits for public health generally, and we’re pleased that the CDC was willing to engage with us on that topic,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, said Monday.

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The release of the paper comes after the league completed its 256-game regular season in the standard 17 weeks while operating with daily coronavirus testing of players, coaches and team staff members and strict and ever-tightening protocols. The NFL has played 12 of the 13 games in its postseason, with only the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa, remaining.

“I think … we were able to show that you can play a team sport while minimizing risk to the participants,” said Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “It does require everyone to do their part every day. It also requires some modification of certain activities — for example, the virtual meetings that we describe in the paper and how that was an important part of risk mitigation.”

The NFL’s methodology for classifying high-risk close contacts to an individual who tests positive — with consideration given to factors such as setting, ventilation and mask usage in addition to the proximity of duration of an interaction — and its management of its quarantines are among the lessons cited.

“I think we learned and reported … that all close contacts are not created equal,” Sills said. “There are some contacts that convey a much higher risk, and circumstances really matter. And so we’ve been able to evolve our understanding away from simple basics of six feet and 15 minutes, which is maybe where we all started back in the early days of the pandemic. I think another important takeaway is that we learned that high-risk close contacts are avoidable.”

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The NFL and NFLPA have conducted daily testing since training camps opened last summer and have used electronic tracking devices to conduct contact tracing following positive tests. But Sills said the league’s methods and findings can be applied in settings with fewer resources available.

“It’s important to recognize that what our work shows is that the most impactful interventions were not those that were high-resource such as daily testing or the proximity tracking devices,” Sills said. “The most impactful interventions are things that can be applied anywhere no matter the resources, things such as universal use of face masks, moving meetings outside or minimizing the amount of in-person meetings, closing dining rooms, offering only to-go food options, strictly enforcing quarantines after exposure. Those things all have broad applicability beyond football.”

Even with caseloads at elevated levels nationally, the NFL held its conference championship games Sunday after a week in which there were no new positive tests for any members of the participating teams. But the league also dealt with major outbreaks on the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens during the regular season, along with numerous positive tests, disruptions to operations and game postponements affecting many teams.

“We essentially have a real-world look at 32 different communities that have been followed over a six- to seven-month period of time,” Sills said, “and that data simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

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