How the Omicron variant is impacting major sports leagues
By Jed Mabazza, Staff Writer
The onset of the Omicron COVID-19 variant has ravaged the world of sports over the past month. This has forced leagues to quickly modify their health and safety protocols. Here’s where things stand in three of the four major sports leagues.
The NBA has enhanced its COVID-19 measures in response to the league’s large uptick in positive cases. As reported by NBA.com, between Dec. 26, 2020 and Jan. 8, 2021, an increase in daily testing will take place. Masks are mandatory for all players and staff in all settings including travelling for an away game, on the bench during games, in meetings and in locker rooms and weight rooms. Players who test positive for COVID-19 are eligible to return to play after five days under the conditions that they are asymptomatic and that their cycle threshold levels (a measurement of how infectious a person is) are above 30.
While these protocols are strict, they don’t seem as strict when compared to two years ago in the 2020 NBA bubble. During that season, COVID-19 protocols were far more stringent as testing was ramped up and the isolation period for COVID-19 positive players was 14 days. To mitigate the loss of players in isolation, games have either been postponed or teams have signed free agents and G-league players to 10-day hardship contracts.
Recent team shutdowns due to rapidly increasing numbers in positive COVID-19 cases have forced the NHL to strengthen its COVID-19 measures until at least Jan. 7. According to the memo sent out by the league, testing will now occur daily instead of every third day. On a case-by-case basis, pre-game testing may occur as needed. Masking is required at all times inside club facilities. Team personnel are strongly encouraged to use the following masks: N95, KN95, or a surgical mask as cloth masks are not acceptable. Any meetings will take place virtually. On the road, teams are prohibited from dining at any indoor restaurants and related establishments that are open to the public. Team personnel are also encouraged to limit community interactions in their home markets as well. Consistent with the original protocols, players who test positive will be required to isolate until three consecutive negative tests results are provided.
These measures contrast the relaxed ones used during the 2021 playoffs. According to NHL.com, the measures included “relaxing restrictions regarding mask-wearing, testing, quarantining, team meetings, social gatherings and team travelling parties.” The NHL announced on Dec. 21 that the league will not be sending players to compete in the 2022 winter Olympics due to COVID-19 concerns and will instead be using those three weeks to reschedule postponed games.
The National Football League also had to modify its COVID-19 measures in response to the surge in positive cases which led to the first game postponement of the 2021 season on Dec. 18. In a memo sent out by the league, masking will be mandatory in all indoor team facilities “regardless of vaccination status.” Previously, this protocol only applied to unvaccinated players. As well, all meetings will be held remotely or outdoors. The memo further outlines that in-person meals are strictly off-limits between players and staff regardless of vaccination status.
Regarding protocols on the road, players are not allowed to dine in any restaurant or attend any entertainment venue in the away city, nor will visitation be allowed in the team hotel. However, the modified protocols allow the NFL to take a different approach from the NBA and NHL regarding the criteria for a player to return to play after testing positive for COVID-19. Under the new protocols, players who have been asymptomatic for at least 24 hours after their initial positive test may be able to return to play sooner assuming they stay symptomatic and return a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or Mesa test.
Weekly testing for asymptomatic players has been removed and instead targeted spot testing will take place in which NFL.com describes as “A sample selection based on position group and staff cohorts…if COVID-19 infections are identified, the NFL and NFLPA medical experts will determine additional mitigation efforts.”
In a recent interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says “this virus will not be eradicated, and we’re going to have to learn to live with it.” This suggests that major league sports will have to continually plan out innovative strategies to mitigate the pandemic’s challenges for the foreseeable future.