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NFLPA proposes return to stricter coronavirus protocols amid delta variant concerns

The New England Patriots have been hosting mobile vaccine clinics at Gillette Stadium. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The NFL Players Association told its membership Wednesday that it will propose re-tightening the sport’s coronavirus protocols and testing vaccinated players and team staffers more frequently, based on growing concerns about the spread of the delta variant and breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals.

The NFLPA’s proposals to the league — outlined in a memo sent by the union to all players — would represent, if enacted, rollbacks to the previous easing of restrictions for vaccinated players and staff members. It is not clear whether the NFL will agree to the NFLPA’s proposals.

“Based on the guidance of our medical experts and what we know about this new variant, this is the best defense we have to prevent infections and protect you and your families, while also executing a full season,” the NFLPA wrote in its memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

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The union wrote that it will recommend to the league that vaccinated players and staffers be tested for the coronavirus each day they enter a team facility.

Under the current protocols, developed by the league and union and released in June, vaccinated players and staffers are tested once every 14 days, while unvaccinated personnel remain subject to the daily testing that was in place last season.

The NFLPA stressed in Wednesday’s memo that, under its proposal, vaccinated players and team staffers would “not have to wait for a test result” to be permitted to enter a team facility, and they would not be tested on off days or during a team’s bye week.

The union said it is also proposing “reducing the number of tiered staff allowed into the locker room.” The NFLPA said in the memo: “In the event of an apparent virus spread among a club, masking may be required for all players and staff, regardless of vaccination status. This is similar to the intensive protocols last year and designed to prevent an outbreak.”

According to the NFLPA memo, in leaguewide coronavirus testing in teams’ training camps between July 25 and Aug. 1, there were “more than 65 positive cases,” and 32 were among vaccinated individuals. The NFLPA memo also cited coronavirus “outbreaks” inside the training-camp facilities of the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins, saying that “we have had two outbreaks inside club facilities … in the first week of training camp this year when we had no team facility transmission until week 3 last year.”

The NFLPA memo cited updated guidance on masking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on the transmissibility of the delta variant, even among vaccinated people.

“We have consistently stated that football will go the way of our communities,” the NFLPA wrote, “and multiple cities and states are experiencing record surges in infections and hospitalizations due to the Delta variant.”

The league said it would be flexible and adjust the protocols if necessary.

“We all have the same goal,” said Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, “which is to create the safest possible environment for our players, coaches and staff. … As we collect that data and analyze it, if we think we need more frequent information vis-a-vis more frequent testing, then we’ll discuss that, again, with the NFLPA and make that decision jointly.”

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Sills said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday evening that the league has not verified any transmission of the virus within team facilities during training camps, adding: “I do not agree that we’re having outbreaks on any of our clubs at this point."

The league has used the easing of restrictions for vaccinated personnel as an inducement to players and staffers to be vaccinated. The NFL said Wednesday that 90.3 percent of players leaguewide have received at least one vaccine dose.

The NFL and NFLPA have not mandated vaccinations for players, instead emphasizing education and the easing of restrictions. The NFL has said that nearly 100 percent of team staffers are vaccinated. The league required vaccinations for coaches and staffers to be permitted to work in proximity to players.

The NFL also told teams that they could be forced to forfeit games this season if they have an outbreak attributable to unvaccinated players or staffers and any affected game cannot be rescheduled within the existing 18-week regular season.

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