The NFL's high COVID-19 vaccination rate provides a "unique opportunity" to model a way out of the ongoing pandemic for the entire country, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said Wednesday in an interview with ESPN.
"We know we are going to have positive cases this season," Sills said a day before the league is scheduled to open its 2021 regular season. "I don't think 'COVID zero' is an attainable goal, and we all need to understand that. What we think we can do is keep our team environments as safe as possible, avoid widespread outbreaks and, with vaccinations in place, convert this into a seasonal illness as opposed to a devastating pandemic."
The NFL managed to play all of its 2020 games, mostly on schedule, and Sills is optimistic that it will follow a similar path in 2021. Positive tests will again disrupt the availability of individual players and staff members, but the league expects most of the corresponding illnesses to be mild and has already seen evidence that full-scale outbreaks among teams will be less likely than they were in 2020, Sills said.
As of this week, 93.5% of NFL players and more than 99% of other football-related staff members are at least partially vaccinated. Unvaccinated players are tested daily and are required to follow a series of additional protocols, while fully vaccinated players are tested once per week. The NFL Players Association has demanded daily testing for all players, saying it would reduce the chance of vaccinated players spreading the virus to each other, but Sills said such instances have been "incredibly rare."
According to NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, 14 players or coaches from the Tennessee Titans have tested positive this summer. But the league has not classified any series of team test results as an outbreak because it did not see evidence of uncontrolled spread within team facilities. Speaking generally, and not about any specific team, Sills said: "We already have enough data to say that vaccinated people are not transmitting in a way that leads to widespread outbreaks because we're not seeing the kind of outbreaks we saw last year."
The NFL also has not documented evidence of a single case of spread outdoors or during games, Sills said, despite the increased transmissibility of the delta variant.
Since the start of training camp, the NFL's COVID-19 incidence rate -- the number of positive tests relative to the full testing pool -- has been about 1% of the roughly 6,000 people who are part of the NFL testing pool. Fully vaccinated players who test positive can return to the field more quickly -- needing only to return two negative tests 24 hours apart -- but that has typically taken a week or more during training camp.
According to Sills, some vaccinated players have been cleared in a matter of days, likely because the league's MESA tests have detected an exposure rather than an infection. Others have returned toward the end of a 10-day period, and a few have needed longer.
"Vaccines were designed to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death," Sills said, "and they're doing a terrific job both inside and outside the NFL. What vaccines ideally do is convert more serious illnesses to more mild illnesses, and we're definitely seeing that as well. We're seeing people with no symptoms or very few symptoms and have a short duration of illness. I don't look at that as a vaccine failure. I look at that as a vaccine's success, that we're able to convert this into a mild respiratory illness."