But players, coaches and team staffers quickly have been reminded — with the preseason now underway — that the coronavirus is not quite as absent or inconsequential as everyone would like, and that it remains possible a team could be left suddenly without its quarterback, its head coach or other key personnel for a game once the regular season begins next month.
The latest reminder came Friday when the Minnesota Vikings announced quarterback Kirk Cousins had tested positive for the virus. Cousins will miss the Vikings’ preseason opener Sunday at Las Vegas against the Raiders and is eligible to rejoin the team next week following a five-day isolation period.
Coach Kevin O’Connell announces that Kirk Cousins has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss Sunday’s game.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) August 12, 2022
“We’re not going to see covid disappear,” Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’ve talked all along about trying to learn to coexist with it, and to treat it with the respect and seriousness that it deserves, but also to understand how we can operate.”
Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll missed time during his team’s training camp early this month after testing positive for the virus. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray also missed time during camp following a positive coronavirus test.
“I’m feeling great,” Carroll said, wearing a mask while speaking at a news conference upon his return to the Seahawks’ camp. “I never did feel really bad. I just had a couple of symptoms that ticked it off, and away we went. So we’ve had to really be cognizant and respectful of everybody else. … We’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of background with this. So we feel like we did it really well.”
Houston Texans quarterback Kyle Allen reportedly is missing a preseason game Saturday because of a positive test. The Vikings confirmed Cousins’s positive test result Friday after saying Thursday that he’d been sent home because of a then-undetermined illness.
The NFL, working mostly collaboratively with the NFL Players Association, implemented strict protocols — including extensive testing, stringent mask-wearing requirements and the use of electronic tracking devices to assist with contact tracing — to play complete seasons in 2020 and 2021. Some games were postponed, but none was canceled entirely. Teams faced competitive disadvantages resulting from isolations from positive tests or quarantines based on contact tracing.
After a sharp increase in cases late last season attributed to the omicron variant, the league and the NFLPA gradually eased their testing requirements and return-to-play procedures, reasoning that it was time to figure out how to live and function with a form of the virus that was more transmissible but did not cause serious illness within the NFL population.
The NFL and the NFLPA agreed in March to suspend their protocols, which remain suspended, meaning there are no leaguewide provisions for regular surveillance testing, masking requirements or contact-tracing quarantines.
Teams have been told they are expected to remain in compliance with state and local health directives. Any player, coach or team staffer with symptoms of covid-19 illness is to be tested; any individual who tests positive is subject to a five-day isolation.
“I think, as always, we monitor these issues very carefully,” Sills said. “And I think that we will continue to see covid cases throughout most — if not all — of our season, just as we will in the general population. We always say that our players, coaches and staff, they’re part of their community. So as communities deal with potential future waves of the illness, we certainly can see that happen, as well. At the same time, I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our team medical staffs. They obviously have a couple of seasons of dealing with these issues and dealing with this illness. And so I think we know a lot more going into it now than we have in previous seasons.”
The league’s coronavirus testing currently is primarily driven by individuals self-reporting symptoms, Sills acknowledged. Competitive pressures perhaps could discourage such self-reporting during the regular season. But Sills said the NFL will stress that keeping everyone within a team’s facility healthy is a collaborative endeavor.
“I think that we’ve continued to emphasize, as we have in the past, that each person has a responsibility to the remainder of their teammates and colleagues to keep them safe,” Sills said, “and to make sure if they are having symptoms to speak up and to get tested, and if they’re positive, obviously to isolate away from the team.”
The NFL did not have leaguewide testing results for teams’ training camps compiled and available as of Thursday, Sills said.
“We obviously can’t predict the future,” Sills said. “This has proved to be a very unpredictable virus, and it certainly will continue to morph and evolve, and new variants may occur. So we’ll just have to remain vigilant and be ready to pivot and adjust and adapt as needed.”