NFL changes return-to-play rules amid COVID outbreak: ‘We just got to be safe with it’

Detroit Free Press

Their COVID-19 outbreak isn’t over, but the Detroit Lions could be getting a large chunk of their roster back soon.

The NFL on Thursday announced changes to its health and safety protocols designed to allow vaccinated players who test positive for the coronavirus to return to the field faster than the current 10-day waiting period.

The Lions have had a surge in COVID cases, with 10 players testing positive for the virus in the past 11 days.

All 10 players are fully vaccinated, and most have been asymptomatic. Nine of those players remain on the reserve/COVID or practice squad reserve/COVID lists.

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Under new guidelines, vaccinated players can clear protocols as soon as the day after they test positive for the virus, so long as they are asymptomatic and their viral load is above a certain benchmark.

Previously, players were required to quarantine for a minimum of 10 days, though vaccinated players could return sooner if they produced negative COVID tests at least 24 hours apart.

All 32 NFL teams will be placed in enhanced COVID protocols through this weekend, meaning all players will have to wear masks inside team facilities and adhere to other social distancing guidelines, regardless of their vaccination status.

The NFL placed the Lions in enhanced protocols Wednesday, and the team self-enforced similar guidelines amid a flu outbreak and after its first positive COVID case last week.

Asked about potential changes to the league’s COVID policy before they were announced Thursday, Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye said he favored following the science.

Oruwariye, who tested positive for COVID last July, is one of two healthy cornerbacks on the Lions’ 53-man roster. Seven defensive backs — Tracy Walker, Bobby Price, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Mark Gilbert, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Corey Ballentine and Jalen Elliott — remain on the reserve/COVID lists.

Running back Jamaal Williams and practice squad linebacker Tavante Beckett are also out with COVID.

“It all depends on the facts,” Oruwariye said. “If this is a certain time between that 10 days that they won’t be contagious, by all means come in and be masked up and be sanitary. But if anyone’s contagious, I think we should take safety first. I think this is all great and all, but that’s people’s lives we’re messing with and families, so we just got to be safe with it.”

Evan Brown, the first Lions player to test positive last week, said he was asymptomatic for his entire nine-day absence. He tested positive Dec. 6, missed the Lions’ loss to the Denver Broncos last week and returned to practice Wednesday after his second negative test.

“You get ruled out at that point, and it kind of sucks and it’s unfortunate because … I didn’t have any symptoms,” Brown said. “I felt good and felt fine, nothing was off. So you kind of just get like brought out and told you can’t go to practice, can’t do anything. It’s just kind of unfortunate, but it’s the world we live in right now and it’s just another step of adversity that teams are just having to deal with right now.”

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Brown said he took part in meetings virtually during his time away from the team and spent his extra downtime playing the video game “Call of Duty.”

He estimated he spent $1,000 ordering food through Door Dash “cause I didn’t want to go out in public,” and he stayed inside through a power outage in his building that lasted Saturday night-Monday morning.

Asked if he supported changes to the NFL’s COVID protocols before the new rules were announced, Brown said, “That’s for smarter people above me to figure out.”

“Obviously, throughout the season we didn’t really see cases and then all of a sudden this week, obviously, it’s spiked through the roof so I think it just is like a reminder to everybody that COVID’s still out there alive and well and it’s just something that we’re having to deal with right now and live through,” he said. “I think we can do our best to be masked up to protect each other and just each person being diligent with what they’ve got to do to stay healthy and you want to keep yourself healthy, you want to keep your families healthy and that’s the main goal.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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