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Epidemiologists say “the NFL season is in jeopardy” due to COVID-19

We talked to scientists about the viability and potential plans for the 2020 NFL season.

Across U.S., Stadiums, Landmarks Illuminated In Blue To Honor Essential Workers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the Falcoholic, our staff has been guessing as to what the 2020 NFL season will have in store. These are truly unprecedented times that have us questioning the basics of not only the upcoming season but our everyday life. Depending on the source, society may open back up in only a matter of weeks or our everyday of life may be limited for years.

Many of us are stuck at home all day, every day, and are desperate for some sense of normalcy. Can the NFL provide that normalcy during a virus pandemic?

That is not clear yet, with the NFL draft and early offseason activities done virtually. Training camp is only three months away with some states saying major gatherings like sporting events will not happen any time soon.

So what should NFL fans expect? We talked to not one but two epidemiologists on the latest Falcoholic podcast to ask exactly that: Dr. Saad Omer, the Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, an infectious disease epidemiologist, and vaccine researcher; and Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist and Incoming Assistant Professor of Quantitative Theory & Methods at Emory, a sports injury analytics consultant, and writer for Football Outsiders.

While the whole podcast is highly recommended for anyone with interest on when we can go back out to restaurants and shops or when we can watch fast people tackle each other, the following highlights some of the most relevant of the interview.

Will we have football in 2020?

Dr. Binney: The NFL season is in jeopardy, but there are things that we can do to make it more likely that we can still have the NFL in the fall—and I don’t think that’s out of the question at all.

Dr. Omer: It would be a lot easier to mitigate risk if whatever is happening around the stadium, whatever is happening around the team or the whole league is under control. So if we have substantially increased testing capacity and contact tracing capacity and all of that, then the overall risk goes down.

Having said that, as someone who proactively thinks about the overall population’s health—health of Americans, health of Atlantans—It is important to recognize that sports are—without sounding too philosophical—an expression of our shared humanity. It’s a microcosm of how we behave as societies. And they play a really substantial role in returning us to normalcy. And even if that normalcy means that we are sitting in our living rooms, and for awhile we don’t get to go to big arenas and enjoy that as a collective experience in the same place, it is important to be creative about these things.

Yes, it will not be easy; it will take substantial economic resources. And it’s the leagues responsibility to be safe, hard-nosed, and to seek out folks who know what they’re doing in terms of disease control etcetera and think through it with some level of maturity to say, “Look, these are the benchmarks we set out from now.”

Will fans be back at stadiums?

Dr. Binney: It’s really dangerous to make 100% predictions, and I don’t like doing that, but I am almost as close to 100% certain as I can be that we’re not going to be able to have sporting events with fans until we have a vaccine. Just getting 50 to 70,000 people together, even 100,000 with something like college football, would be incredibly dangerous. Even if transmission is fairly low in that area, you may have people coming in from out of town, and it’s just not – the situation on the ground would have to change drastically for me to think that putting that many people together is responsible.

Because the thing is, every time you add a person to a gathering you increase the risk of creating more cases in two ways: One is you increase the risk of somebody with the virus being in that group, and the other is you add somebody who is potentially susceptible to that virus and could have it transmitted to them – to that group. So the safest you could possibly be is a single person completely isolated. Right? Virus won’t jump to you. Second safest is two people, because there’s only two chances for somebody to be sick and once chance for the virus to jump. As you get bigger: 10 people is more dangerous than 2, 50 is more dangerous than 10, 500 is more dangerous than that, and 70,000 would be extremely dangerous. So I think that most leagues are probably in their heart of hearts, if I had to guess, looking at solutions without fans until we have a vaccine, which isn’t going to be this year I don’t think.

What should the NFL do?

Dr. Binney: So what might the NFL be able to do to salvage its season? My guess—and this is just a guess—is that you would need to limit the number of people that you have together in order to run training camp and run games, as much as you can. Ideally you would quarantine those people as well as you could, maybe in local hotels, and have sterile transport to the stadium or to the team facility. The ideal solution, which is really really difficult, is to create this kind of biodome, which would be a totally closed system that the virus couldn’t enter. Which would be players, coaches, broadcasters, officials, medical staff; and, by the way, all the support staff necessary to pull this off, like the people who run the hotel, your bus drivers. All of these people would have to be isolated and tested multiple times for two weeks to make sure they were virus-free, and then transmitted as quickly and cleanly as possible into this quarantined system that you’re trying to run. And then you would have to maintain that really, really aggressively.

We definitely need to be prioritizing public health and only bringing sports back if it can be done safely for the players; who, as much as people think, you know, “young, elite athletes are in no danger,” – that’s not true. They’re in some danger. The danger is not zero of dying or having long-term health consequences from getting COVID-19. You’ve also got to think about the coaches, the officials—these are not all young, elite athletes themselves. So you’ve got to think about the risk to them. So you have to have a system that puts their health first. And it’s possible but it’s all going to depend on the situation on the ground and how widespread transmission is and how rigorous of a quarantine you could establish for how many people.

Dr. Omer: So the good thing is that the advantage we have as a society for events that are a few months away is that we can plan for them. And we can have two, three mitigation scenarios, and say, “Okay, here’s how we can mitigate the risk.” All major teams have pretty sophisticated quantitative shops. And it’s a similar kind of skills that can map out different scenarios, that can look at different disease control strategies and risk mitigation strategies, and have the majority to say that, “Maybe it’s not going to work out.”

But I think, as someone who believes the importance of sports in a society, I think it’s worth trying as long as you’re willing to say, “Okay, maybe the solutions might not work out,” and then willing to wait and see how the situation evolves. Because there are several variables around in terms of broader society and how we respond to this outbreak in the next few months as a country.

What can improve the 2020 outlook?

Dr. Binney: The main message that I want to get across to people is: The more aggressive that we are now about bringing the number new cases down to a trickle, and the more vigilant we are about keeping containment on the virus, the easier it is going to be to bring professional sports back. So if you want sports back, do what you need to do right now and continue to do what public health officials are asking you to do in the future.

All of these methods are going to take a tremendous amount of logistical planning and economic resources. And they’re also going to take things like tests—COVID-19 tests—it’s going to take medical personnel to run a league—especially a league like the NFL. We need to have a situation where we’re not taking those tests away from people who need them, and the medical system is not overwhelmed. So that taking the doctors and the other medical personnel that we need in order to be able to run the league is not putting anyone else in danger. Otherwise that raises some ethical questions.

Could we be at that point by the summer? I think it’s possible, I think the jury is still out and I’m really curious to see what happens, especially with the testing being spun up and what happens in some of the states that were a little later movers on shelter in place orders, and we’ll see what happens. It’s a developing situation like ya’ll said.