A handful of Vikings players were getting treatment inside TCO Performance Center in Eagan on Tuesday, Sept. 29, when the news broke. Elsewhere in the building, the coaching staff was going over film from that Sunday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium, while team employees were just starting their work day in the early-morning hours.
Around 9 a.m., the Vikings got word that five members of the Titans organization had tested positive for the coronavirus. In a matter of minutes, the evacuation process began in Minnesota.
“We were able to get everybody out of the building within an hour,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “I think by 10 o’clock we had our building entirely clear. Not only players and coaches, but any staff members that were in there as well.”
What followed for the Vikings was a 48-hour roller-coaster that featured a plethora of unknowns heading into their Oct. 4 game in Houston against the Texans. Did anyone contract the coronavirus? Would they have to postpone the game? Was this the beginning of the end for the NFL’s season?
The answer to all of those questions played out in real time as the Vikings returned to the team facility a couple of days later, then ultimately earned a win over the Texans a few days after that. Meanwhile, the Titans continued to return positive tests for COVID more than 10 days later.
It raises the question: What did we learn from the Vikings-Titans game?
While some were wary of the Vikings playing a week after potentially being exposed to the coronavirus, after returning negative tests all week leading up to their game against the Texans, the game in Houston went off without a medical hitch. No player from that game has returned a positive test and both teams are scheduled to play again this weekend.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who is also a member of the NFL testing committee, said he fully supported last week’s game between the Vikings and the Texans being played. He pointed to the daily testing leading up to the game and the contact tracing devices the league uses to determine which players were in close contact.
“I think (the NFL testing committee) has put every emphasis on the safety of the teams,” Osterholm said. “It has never put the availability of any player over that. I think they have done a remarkable job of protecting the teams. I think what the decisions were with the Vikings were right on the mark. I was part of them, and I concurred 100 percent.”
The thing Osterholm stressed more than anything else was how the coronavirus spreads, specifically how researchers have learned that transmission on the actual field is of lower risk than some might expect.
“There hasn’t been any evidence yet that playing (football or other sports) is what makes transmission happen,” Osterholm said. “I’m not aware of any cases associated with playing. It’s all been because of contact in the team facilities and things of that nature. Not on the actual field.”
That would explain why infected Titans passed the virus to each other and not the Vikings. In theory, the team spread occurred in the team facility, or on the team plane, or on the team bus.
Chad Asplund, a sports medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine in Minneapolis, who spent last month in Orlando as the medical lead inside the NBA bubble, supported the notion about lack of transmission on the actual field.
“If the Titans had positive players, and the Vikings played the Titans, while the risk is not zero for the Vikings, the risk is actually pretty low,” Asplund said. “The risk of transmission between players in an outdoor sport where there’s a lot of motion is actually pretty small. The risk of transmission comes in during team meetings and other off-the-field activities.”
In addition, Asplund said based on what researchers know about the incubation period once someone is exposed, coupled with the accuracy of daily testing, if someone on the Vikings contracted the coronavirus against the Titans, it more than likely would have shown up within a week of exposure.
Thus, the Vikings playing the Texans a week after being exposed, while not completely devoid of risk, was something the league felt comfortable doing.
“It is safer if we do the daily testing and have the safety protocols in place,” Asplund said. “There is always going to be some degree of risk in the midst of a pandemic. I don’t know if I would go all in and say it’s safe. I would say it’s safer.”
Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said the only way to safely complete the NFL season would be to conduct it inside a bubble, like the NBA, WNBA and NHL did to complete their seasons. Without doing so, even if a player walls himself off to the outside world, there are still so many points of contact in their daily life.
“These players are traveling for games and going home and seeing their family and friends, and their personal bubbles are getting exponentially expanded because of that,” Demmer said. “There is no risk-free scenario here. They will never be able to eliminate the risk. That’s always going to be there because they aren’t in a bubble and there are so many points of contact in their daily life.”
That became apparent with the New England Patriots when quarterback Cam Newton tested positive last week and cornerback Stephon Gilmore tested positive this week. While there hasn’t yet been any documented spread across the team, it shows that players are at risk simply by living their daily lives.
Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, spoke on NFL Network this week and said what’s happening with the Patriots is actually evidence that the safety protocols are working. He pointed to the fact that the NFL has conducted more than 400,000 tests with a little more than 80 positive cases and no team spread aside from the Titans.
“In the overwhelming majority of those cases, we have not seen transmission,” Sills said. “We just have to continue to close any loopholes. We knew this was going to be hard. This virus is a relentless opponent. It needs only a small crack. Even 90 to 95 percent compliance with our protocols is not enough. That’s not a passing grade because that still leaves us vulnerable.”
As for the Vikings, they will travel to play the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. Maybe the simple fact that they are playing that game at all is proof that the daily testing is doing its job.
“You can use testing in a very effective way to help control transmission,” Osterholm said. “It doesn’t by itself eliminate the risk. You can’t test your way out of a pandemic. You can use it as a valuable tool, and that’s the positive thing here.”
“I think there will be a tremendous amount learned from this that will have direct application to public health in general,” he added. “We are going to keep learning. That’s the whole point. Maybe something will change in the future. As far as right now, though, the testing program is holding up as well as possible, and I give them a lot of credit.”