What happens when NFL players test positive for COVID-19?

The NFL is not playing its 2020 season in a bubble like the NBA or the NHL, leagues that have rebooted their play successfully amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. So the NFL knows positive coronavirus tests among thousands of players, coaches and team/league personnel are all but inevitable.

So the key for the 2020 NFL season playing out on schedule is testing. That, and what happens when players, coaches and other essential NFL personnel test positive for the coronavirus.

Daily COVID-19 testing has been in place since the start of NFL training camps for people in two groups — Tier 1 (“players and essential football personnel whose job function requires direct access to players for more than 10 minutes at a time on a regular basis”) and Tier 2 (“other essential personnel who may need to be in close proximity to players and other Tier 1 individuals and who may need to access restricted areas periodically”).

The daily COVID-19 testing for those two groups will continue into the regular season, except on game days, according to ESPN. Everybody else is tested weekly.

Which is a good sign for the viability of the NFL season as the league hopes to mitigate the risk of outbreaks within individual teams. As part of the league’s overall plan for the 2020 season, below is what happens when a player tests positive for COVID-19.

What happens when NFL players test positive for COVID-19?

All NFL players who test positive for COVID-19 go through the same protocols. First, they are immediately isolated. They are forbidden to access team facilities and are not allowed to have any direct contact with fellow players or team personnel. They immediately are placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list (more on that below).

In the event a player develops symptoms for the first time while inside the team facility, he must go through the following protocols:

As for when players can return to the team, it depends. Below is the NFL’s wording on its rules for players returning from COVID-19 cases.

Following a positive test, if the player is asymptomatic, he can return once:

Following a positive test, if the player demonstrates symptoms, he can return once:

In either case, a player who tests positive must be cleared by his team’s head physician before returning.

Additionally, all players who have tested positive and recovered (or who have tested positive for antibodies) will undergo additional cardiac screening.

Below are the NFL’s protocols for cardiac screening:

The NFL also has implemented contact tracing. Conducted by a third party called IQVIA, the contact tracing is implemented after an infected player receives a positive test result in an effort to identify people who came in close contact with that person. Kinexon Proximity Recording player tracking devices are being used to identify in-game close contacts, and the devices must be worn during all team activities.

Teams have been instructed to notify health authorities of positive tests as required by applicable local regulations or laws. 

The NFL COVID list, explained

The NFL implemented a special reserve list called “Reserve/COVID-19” in 2020 for players who have to be removed from the active roster because of the coronavirus. But just because a player is put on the list does not mean he tested positive for the virus.

The COVID-19 list includes both players who have tested positive and those who have come in close contact with somebody who has tested positive. An agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA established that teams are not allowed to publicly announce a player’s medical status, just that he has been placed on the list.

Players who are put on the list because they tested positive must follow the return protocols listed above. Those who are put on the list because they tested negative but were determined to be in close contact with an infected person must follow the following return protocols:

When the NFL and the NFLPA announced the COVID-19 monitoring testing results for Aug. 21-29, they reported four new confirmed positive tests among players and six new confirmed positives among other personnel. In that period, there were 58,621 tests administered to a total of 8,739 players and team personnel.

Because positive coronavirus test results among NFL players are all but inevitable, it’s reasonable to anticipate more players missing games than usual in 2020. So the league agreed to expand practice squad rosters to 16 players, including six veterans (unlimited number of accrued seasons) rather than two, for this season.

The NFL also established new practice squad rules that account for potential COVID-19 outbreaks on active rosters. If a practice squad player is elevated to the active roster because his team was given roster exemptions “due to confirmed or suspected cases of a contagious disease among its players,” then the player won’t be required to sign an active player contract. He will automatically revert to the practice squad after the game without going through waivers.

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