With Thanksgiving approaching and COVID-19 cases rising again nationwide, the NFL on Tuesday night issued a memo to its teams detailing changes to its COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory testing for all players and staff the Monday and Wednesday after the holiday and mandatory mask-wearing for all players and staff while inside club facilities from Nov. 25 through Dec. 1.
The memo, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, also establishes new requirements for surveillance cameras in team facilities for the purpose of enforcing COVID-19 protocols. The memo says the league has been "periodically reviewing footage from surveillance cameras in club facilities to ensure Protocol compliance. Discipline has been issued against individual players and clubs as warranted."
Effective Nov. 29, all NFL teams will be required to have video cameras installed in their weight rooms and cafeterias, including weight rooms that are outdoors or in practice bubbles. Teams must retain video from those cameras for 30 days in case the league requests to view it for the purpose of finding out whether people are following mask requirements at team facilities.
NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said that 81 players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during the latest testing period, Oct. 31-Nov. 13, the highest caseload of the season. From Sept. 5 through Oct. 30, a total of 97 players and staff members tested positive, and the surge that followed sparked the decision to elevate testing and masking policies.
"That wasn't a total surprise to us," Sills said. "Because we've said our numbers in the NFL reflect what's going in our communities around us. We saw more disease in a number of areas of the country that are really spiking with caseloads. We're seeing and feeling the effect of that."
The league is testing roughly 6,500 people in each testing period.
The memo seems especially concerned about Thanksgiving. It says NFL teams "are strongly encouraged to offer drive-through testing" for friends and family of staff and players who will be staying or visiting with them for the holiday. "Such testing should be conducted before friends and family interact with players and staff."
All Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals, regardless of vaccination status, will be Mesa [rapid PCR] tested on Monday, Nov. 29, and Wednesday, Dec. 1. Under the current protocols, unvaccinated players must be tested every day and wait for their test results to come back negative before they are allowed to enter the building, while vaccinated players and staff are tested once a week and do not have to wait for their results before entering. For the week after Thanksgiving, vaccinated individuals will be tested on Monday and Wednesday.
The memo also offers reminders about how testing procedures are expected to be conducted and about the requirements for mask-wearing for all members of the team traveling party while on buses or airplanes.
Meanwhile, Sills said the NFL and NFLPA have launched a voluntary study of COVID-19 antibody levels among vaccinated players and staff to get a better idea of whether immunity is waning. The results could inform a booster shot protocol later in the season, but for now the league is telling clubs to follow state and local guidelines on booster shots.
ESPN's Kevin Seifert contributed to this report.