All along, the NFL’s leadership said there would be some type of unforeseen failure when it came to the league’s defense against COVID-19 infections. Perhaps the coronavirus would slither its way into a facility undetected and wreak havoc. Or maybe there would be a viral outbreak in a social setting, either from lax behavior or a simple mistake. Whatever it was, the league’s executives and doctors were always clear. One way or another, some kind of pothole was coming, and how the NFL responded would be pivotal.
Well here we are, coming off a weekend that saw the league’s smooth preseason ride suddenly interrupted by a crater: 77 false positives spread over 11 different franchises — and an unexpected quandary about what to do when a major testing failure isn’t the fault of the league or any of its franchises.
Oddly enough, as COVID-19 problems go for sports leagues, the NFL’s latest issue will ultimately come with a few significant silver linings.
Timing of lab’s error benefits NFL in long run
It happened in the midst of some stunningly good data, which saw the league administer 58,397 COVID-19 testes between Aug. 12-20, with only six positive results — none of which were among the player ranks. And as of Monday, only two players remained on the league’s COVID-19 reserve list, which means it’s possible the NFL will have zero active COVID cases among players by the end of the preseason.
The positive spin on those numbers would have taken a massive hit with a sudden tidal wave of 77 positive tests over the weekend, but every single one of them was debunked Monday — thanks to an admission of failure by the New Jersey lab that processed the results. And while such a significant mistake should raise alarms for the league, it also carries something extremely valuable with it. Not only did the failure expose a fixable scenario that the NFL hadn’t anticipated, the anxiety-inducing revelation happened precisely when the league hoped it would: before any NFL games kicked off and with nearly two weeks to troubleshoot.
That’s what this weekend’s chaos ultimately provided for the league. A best-possible outcome in a worst-case scenario. Certainly nobody in the league is going to celebrate the fairly catastrophic mistake of a lab contaminating 77 samples. But it presented the NFL with a scenario that very likely would have disrupted games in the regular season — delivering a wake-up call that there are still some serious testing and procedural land mines to be diffused.
‘Our protocols will improve. We will get better.’
Under normal circumstances, this would be the moment when the NFL had this whole 2020 endeavor called into question. After all, the league put itself in position where one lab mistake could ripple into 11 different franchises.
The reality is the league and its doctors have said all along that something like this would happen, and the viability of the 2020 season would depend on how the NFL responded. That’s where we are now — with the league’s doctors and executives trying to problem-solve some kind of fail-safe for another lab failure.
“This has been a tremendous learning opportunity for us,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “We said all along that we’re going to learn a great deal as we move through this protocol, because we’re doing something that’s never been done before. … We know that we’re going to learn along the way, and we’ve seen that happen already. Certainly, the events of this weekend demonstrated that fact again. As a result of what happened this weekend, our protocols will improve. We will get better. Our procedures will get better.”
How that will take place has yet to be determined. But Sills and the laboratory involved have been clear about what happened. It was a mistake that occurred in the gap between the lab receiving testing samples and the period when they were analyzed.
If anything, it demonstrated to the NFL how easily the analysis portion of testing can go sideways. And that might be part of the forthcoming changes. Maybe to the point that end-of-week testings — essentially the last round of results before gameday — could be beefed up to provide a backstop against a mistake that happens in the hands of laboratories.
Could using more labs help NFL?
In that vein, a pair of general managers whose teams were swept up in the false positives over the weekend both expressed support for “testing redundancy,” which is the practice of taking multiple samples and having them tested separately to either confirm or clear a positive. One such redundancy would be for players to provide three samples late in the week that would then be processed either separately by the same lab or by three different labs. In the event that a first test (Sample A) turned up positive, that result could then be back-checked against the other two tests (Samples B and C). If the two subsequent tests were to come back negative, that would help the NFL to hone in on what was likely a testing mistake or contamination.
“It sounds like a fantastic idea,” an AFC general manager said.
Whatever the NFL ultimately determines is the right tweak, it will have to be approved by the NFL Players Association prior to implementation. Given that such a sign-off could take time, it’s expected that the NFL will attempt to move swiftly to get additional safeguards in place this week. Possibly in time to do a dry run of the new protocols by this weekend, providing the opportunity to simulate regular-season conditions.
“Whatever happens, we want a [protocol change] in our hands as soon as possible,” another AFC general manager said. “It’s good to have time to figure it out, but we’re also getting this thing going soon. And I’d rather not be trying something new in the first week [of the regular season].”
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