The NFL dealt with its biggest COVID outbreak of the season ahead of Week 15. Several teams — including the Browns, Rams and Washington — saw at least 20 players hit the reserve/COVID list while others dealt with smaller but still important outbreaks among their key players.
The league-wide outbreak caused the NFL to reschedule three games. It also caused the league to review its COVID protocols as it tries to finish the 2021 NFL season.
On Saturday, the NFL confirmed it would, in fact, make changes to its COVID rules. Specifically, the league was looking for a way to make it easier for vaccinated, asymptomatic players to avoid testing and stay on the field, and it appears that they found that.
What are the new rules? Here’s a breakdown of how COVID protocol will work for the rest of the 2021 NFL season.
New NFL COVID rules for vaccinated players
The NFL is making a couple of key changes to its COVID rules for vaccinated players, as it explained in a league memo. The most noteworthy change is the implementation of “targeted testing” for vaccinated individuals.
Vaccinated individuals will no longer have to test for COVID on a weekly basis under the new targeted testing protocols. Instead, they will undergo “strategic spot testing” as determined by the NFL. If a player is found to be COVID positive during these spot checks, then the league’s medical experts will “determine additional mitigation efforts” for the positive test. That could include additional testing.
It is unclear how frequently vaccinated players will be subject to these targeted tests, but they appear to be a pool test of sorts.
That said, there will still be a few ways vaccinated can be tested for COVID as the season goes along. They are as follows:
- They present as symptomatic. The league is implementing stringent symptom screening at each facility as part of its revamped COVID protocols. Any vaccinated players that present symptoms of COVID will be tested and won’t be allowed to enter the facility until returning a negative result.
- They are a high-risk vaccinated contact. If a vaccinated player is a close contact to someone who tests positive for COVID within the building, they will be required to test as a part of the team’s contract tracing protocols. The team’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) determines the number of days this vaccinated player has to test for the virus, but the individual will be able to practice unless they return a positive test result.
- They wish to voluntarily test. Players can either request to be tested or receive a take-home test. They are required to promptly provide results in the event their home test returns a positive.
Vaccinated players had been tested on a weekly basis under the NFL’s previous protocols. This new arrangement will ensure that asymptomatic players will not have to test as frequently while the NFL deals with the Omicron variant.
What is NFL’s COVID protocol for unvaccinated players?
The NFL isn’t making changes to its COVID protocols for unvaccinated players. Those individuals will still have to be tested daily for the virus, as they have been all season. If they test positive, they will still have to remain out and isolated for at least 10 days. They can only return from that 10-day quarantine if they are asymptomatic.
Additionally, unvaccinated players will have to be out for five days if they are deemed a high-risk, close contact to someone who tests positive for the virus. Vaccinated players don’t have to automatically miss time as close contacts; they will just be tested extra under the league’s new protocols.
Below are more details about the NFL’s COVID protocol for unvaccinated players
- Unvaccinated individuals must be tested for COVID every day at the team facility. If a player misses even one day of testing, they will be required to test negative for COVID for five straight days before re-entering the facility. That’s what happened to Cam Newton before the final week of the Patriots’ preseason.
- Unvaccinated free agents must also test negative for five consecutive days before being allowed to enter a team facility.
- Unvaccinated players must wear masks at all times in the facility. They cannot gather in groups larger than three players and on the road “are prohibited from congregating, visiting or mingling with individuals outside of the traveling party once they have arrived in the game city.”
- Unvaccinated individuals are subject to fines if they break COVID protocols. This can include anything from failing to wear a mask in the facility or going to an indoor concert or house party with more than 15 people.
When is a player considered fully vaccinated?
The NFL has required its Tier 1 and Tier 2 non-player personnel to be vaccinated and get a booster shot to combat COVID, but the rules for players are different. They can still be considered vaccinated without having the booster.
To be fully vaccinated, a player must be either 14 days removed from their final dose of Pfizer, Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or and are 14 days removed from a single dose of any vaccine if they have previously contracted COVID.