NFL chief medical officer ‘guardedly optimistic’ COVID-19 won’t drastically alter playoffs

The NFL made it through last winter’s postseason tournament and Super Bowl without encountering schedule disruptions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t have to cancel any games this past fall because of the virus. While there were concerns rising coronavirus cases caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant coupled with possible pandemic-related attendance restrictions in California could cause the league to move Super Bowl LVI from SoFi Stadium, it was confirmed Thursday that no such plans exist heading into the opening round of this year’s playoffs. 

NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills spoke with Sam Farmer and Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times for a piece published Friday and said he’s “guardedly optimistic” the league can get through the upcoming playoffs without significant issues or setbacks. 

“We pivoted away from sort of a broad surveillance where we were testing unvaccinated people every day and vaccinated people once a week,” Sills said of the league’s approach amid the Omicron infection wave. “We’ve done what we call a strategic and targeted program, where we’re still testing unvaccinated daily, but we’re no longer doing random surveillance testing. We’re targeting people with symptoms and asking them to come forward and be tested. I think that that has been a big success.” 

Sills added that 94% of NFL players, coaches, and staff members are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while others recently infected also have some immunity. Nevertheless, it’s expected teams will encourage players to wear masks and practice social distancing when away from football-related activities in an attempt to prevent outbreaks among rosters through postseason play. 

“I believe that we have a solid plan in place and we’ve shown that we can adapt and adjust as the data leads us,” Sills continued. “But we’ve also said that we’re always going to respond to the data and what it’s showing us, and we’re going to work with public health authorities and make sure that we’re respecting their directives and also supporting the messaging that needs to go out.” 

As Michael David Smith wrote for Pro Football Talk, logic suggests at least some players will elect against self-reporting COVID-19 symptoms to avoid potentially testing positive for the virus during the most important part of the NFL year. That’s a risk the league is willing to take roughly one month ahead of Super Bowl Sunday.