US sports leagues facing COVID-19 crisis

Professional sports leagues across the U.S. are dealing with a COVID-19 crisis as a rash of cases is forcing the NHL and NBA to postpone games and NFL teams to scramble to fill roster spots for absent players.

After multiple COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020, the hope this year was that high vaccination rates and a strict adherence to protocols would stave off a surge in infections. 

Until this week, it seemed to be working. 

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During the first 2 1/2 months of the football season, from early September to late November, there were only about 110 players on the COVID-19 reserve list. 

But as infections across the country have increased, so too have infections in the leagues. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current seven-day daily average of cases is about 117,900 cases per day. After a slight decline at the end of November, infections began spiking at the beginning of December though have held steady in the past week. 

The NFL hit a single-day high of 36 positive tests among players Monday. By Wednesday, the COVID-19 list grew to at least 90 players.

The Los Angeles Rams lost five players ahead of Monday night's game, and as of Wednesday the list was up to 13. The Cleveland Browns have 15 players on the COVID-19 reserve list, as well as their head coach. 

Those teams are now among seven that the league has moved into "enhanced protocols," which means virtual meetings, masks indoors at all times and COVID-19 testing every day.

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One possible explanation for the recent spate of cases is waning immunity from the initial vaccines. Zachary Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, said lots of professional athletes likely got vaccinated at the same time, so immunity could be wearing off.

Waning immunity, combined with increased community spread and with players likely gathering with friends and family for the holidays, could be why so many leagues are hurting at the same time, he said. 

"Look, we still have a whole lot of cases every day in this country. We've got over 1,000 deaths a day. The pandemic has not gone away," Binney said. 

For the NFL, the timing couldn't be worse as many teams are playing some of the most meaningful games in the final weeks of the regular season.

In the offseason, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell laid out punishments for outbreaks as incentives for players to get vaccinated. There were financial penalties for players and ownership, and teams would even have to forfeit games if they didn't have enough players.

But there is no indication that any games will be postponed. According to the league, nearly 95 percent of NFL players and nearly 100 percent of league personnel are vaccinated.

The league is looking to tighten its rules and will require booster shots for certain vaccinated staff and coaches.

In addition, the NFL Players Association is reportedly having discussions with its members and league officials about changes to the league protocols, including daily COVID-19 testing for vaccinated players, as well as a tweak that would allow asymptomatic players back on the field sooner. 

The NBA on Monday postponed its first games of the season due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the Chicago Bulls. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden are isolating after entering into the league's coronavirus protocols Tuesday.

NBA protocols mandate players sit out at least 10 days or produce two negative tests in 24 hours before returning.

According to ESPN, 36 of the league’s 51 positive cases this year have occurred in the last two weeks. The NBA has said 97 percent of the league is vaccinated and is encouraging everyone to get booster shots.

The NHL has already postponed nine games this season; this week alone, the Calgary Flames suspended three games because of COVID-19. The NHL had 55 games postponed last season, though all were made up.

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There is only one unvaccinated player in the entire NHL, but to stop the spread, the entire league will enter into enhanced protocols through early January, ESPN reported Wednesday. That means daily testing, mandatory masks indoors and no dining out when on the road.

Binney said he thinks all leagues should be following the "enhanced" rules, especially in light of the looming threat of the omicron variant.

"You don't want to be too light, even on the vaccinated right now, because we know that they can, it's less likely but they can be infected ... and pass it to other folks. So you probably want to be a little more cautious right now," Binney said.