SAN DIEGO — Say the NFL plays its games this year while the coronavirus pandemic persists, and in some cities fans are allowed to attend.
You won’t see infectious disease expert Richard Garfein in the crowd.
“You wouldn’t catch me dead in a football stadium this year — or next year, probably,” said Garfein, a professor in UC San Diego’s Division of Global Public Health.
As Garfein told it, wearing a mask would be appropriate, but not his idea of a great way to spend three hours of fun time.
Nor is the local epidemiologist wild about the NFL’s chances of staging the 2020 season, calling it “really difficult to do that safely.”
But he didn’t dismiss it happening.
And despite his skepticism, the scientist saw the NFL having a chance to achieve a large victory.
If the NFL can nail the details — admittedly, a big if — then a lot of good could come from America’s most popular sports league preparing for and then playing its games during a pandemic.
“They could actually have a major impact on changing the attitudes of the country,” Garfein said.
Outlining how the league could advance the fight against the pandemic, the scientist suggested universal messaging as follows:
“Look, we really want to get back to playing, and the only way we’re going to do it is if we all follow good clinical practices. We wear masks. We avoid going out to bars in between games, and our families are committed to keeping us healthy. And, we all work together.
“If the NFL sets an example for the rest of the country that would be awesome,” Garfein added, while noting positive tests for the virus lately have surged in several states including California and neighboring Arizona. “They have a major influence,” he said of the league’s players, coaches and team owners, “and if they can use that influence to do some good, I’m all for it.”
The NFL plans for the regular season to start Sept. 10 as scheduled, with a game between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. And one local NFL enthusiast isn’t making alternative plans for that evening.
“I still think the NFL season will start on time, and I don’t see any advantage to putting the season back,” said former Chargers team physician Dr. David Chao, echoing his forecast in March.
Chao attached a few disclaimers.
“There’s going to be risk,” he said. “Players and coaches will test positive.”
He added: “It would be surprising” if any NFL team went into training camp in late July “without someone, somewhere having tested positive.” (Entering this week, nine teams had reported at least one player had tested positive.)
Chao said older coaches such as Bill Belichick, 68, will have to be especially vigilant. “The good news,” he said, “is the coaches have the ability to social distance” during games.
If Chao were still an NFL team doctor, a job that brought him into daily contact with several Chargers players and other team personnel between 1996 and 2013, he wouldn’t deem the duties overly hazardous. “I would be staying on the job, for sure,” he said.
It probably doesn’t hurt the NFL’s odds that cooperation and football go hand in hand.
“This is going to require a lot of teamwork,” Chao said, “and not just with the guys on the field but with the head coaches, coordinators, assistant coaches and with the medical staff, the strength and conditioning staff, the facility’s managers, the equipment guys, the locker-room guys and management upstairs. They need to buy in on this.”
Segregating or spacing out players will be part of the daily discipline, and will happen even among small positional units lest a team lose, for instance, both its active quarterbacks for at least two weeks to a positive virus test.
Other wrinkles Chao forecast include less huddling in games and practices, team temperature reports every Saturday, an exhibition-season slate cut from four games to two and team meetings — a staple to daily NFL life — staged on practice fields with players and coaches seated six-plus feet apart on folding chairs.
The notion of playing football in a pandemic may seem absurd, given the proximity of the participants.
Players tackle each other, and linemen grapple for some 60 plays per game. Linemen, some of them obese, draw deep breaths while huffing and puffing within six feet (sometimes inches) of each other. Practice sessions mimic that proximity and some of the exertion.
“It’s a contact sport, so absolutely it’s a vector where you can get infected,” said Dr. Rand McClain, chief medical officer of regenerative and sports medicine at Santa Monica-based LCR Health.
However, even if football players were exposed to an infected player during a game — something the NFL will try to avoid through testing that could run three times per week — McClain said “it doesn’t guarantee infection.”
Chao noted none of the NBA players Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz played against in March tested positive, though that game happened a day before Gobert’s infection was discovered (and Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell later tested positive).
“The poison is in the dose,” McClain said. “So, if someone just passes by you and breathes on you who happens to be infected, you might get 50 virions of viral particles that you inhale, but your immune system can handle that. Now, if someone sneezes in your direction even just passing by on the street and you’re not wearing a mask, you’re probably certain to get a heck of a lot more.”
Chao said the “viral load” needed to cause an infection generally comes from accumulation of prolonged exposure to the virus. Therefore, he deemed the risk of NFL personnel contracting the virus as “greater off the field than on it.” He stressed huddling will be curtailed, which is more easily done because the reduced crowd noise will allow for easier communication at the line of scrimmage.
Chao suggested setting up logistics for an NFL team’s various daily meetings, along with three or four practices per week, will require more planning and flexibility than the safety protocols for the games.
Garfein isn’t sure the NFL can avoid a potentially dicey public-relations problem on testing, in light of uneven efforts on that front nationally. The plan is for all 32 teams to regularly test some 120 employees through training camp and then some 80 employees through the 17-week season.
“Right now,” the scientist said, “there’s an inadequate amount of testing. There’s not enough tests to go around. Putting more testing into one particular sector is going to reduce the availability of testing in another sector. If you’ve got health-care workers that are struggling to get tested at the same time that we’re testing the NFL players (and other staff), that could look bad.”
Of course the $14 billion NFL isn’t part of evaluation when ordinary folks decide to wear a mask or avoid a crowded social event, but if health-care providers were to get overwhelmed in numerous U.S. cities, the NFL could face too much political blowback to stage its season.
The epidemiologist’s big-picture forecast?
“We will beat this,” Garfein said of the pandemic. He added: “We just have to maintain our diligence on it.”
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