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NFL COVID-19 protocols, explained: What you need to know before the playoffs begin

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on the NFL coronavirus protocols for the playoffs.

It took playing games on all seven days of the week, a wide receiver starting at quarterback, several schedule changes and constant revisions to health and safety protocols for the NFL to complete 256 regular-season games. Now comes the postseason and a new set of challenges, with the league looking to reach Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 7 with no interruptions.

Here’s a rundown of the league’s coronavirus protocols and how they work:

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What is the reserve/COVID-19 list?

The list is for players who have tested positive for the coronavirus or who have been in close contact with an infected person. Those players are removed from the active 53-man roster and temporarily replaced, usually with a player from the practice squad.

Previously, free agents needed to enter a six-day testing period before being eligible to practice and play in games. However, to help fill rosters during the postseason, players who are currently in the league’s COVID-19 testing cadence will be permitted to join or try out for a new club without having to start a new six-day entry testing period. Players can sign with a team provided that they take all their required tests, travel privately and pass a rapid-response test.

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After punter Sam Koch was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week, ending his franchise-record streak of 239 consecutive games played, the Ravens signed Johnny Townsend, who was able to play in the regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals because he has remained in the NFL’s coronavirus testing protocols.

When can players return from the list?

Under the league’s coronavirus protocols, players who test positive must self-quarantine for at least 10 days while continuing their testing. Players who are considered “high-risk” close contacts are sidelined at least five days.

NFL teams have no control over when infected players can be cleared to return. If they’re asymptomatic, they can rejoin team activities 10 days after they returned their positive test. Symptomatic players, however, can return only when at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared, and at least 72 hours after they last experienced symptoms.

How does contract tracing work?

Players and personnel wear mandatory proximity recording devices when at the team facility, during practices, and during travel. Players also have them built into their equipment for use during practices and games.

The device collects data about individuals’ proximity to each other to perform contact tracing when an individual is symptomatic or tests positive for COVID-19.

In a video released Wednesday, the league explained that it isolates infected individuals and prevents them from further contact with teams for 10 days. A contact-tracing squad, including the league’s chief medical officer, team personnel and other health experts, reviews the case, and it is then assigned to a subgroup of contract tracers.

Data is reviewed from proximity devices, information is gathered about the team’s schedule and activities before the positive test, and the infected person, teammates, coaches and other personnel who might have come in proximity are interviewed. A report is generated identifying “high-risk” close contacts, who are immediately isolated, placed on the COVID-19 list and held out a minimum of five days.

As of Wednesday, the league said 37 individuals identified as “high-risk close contacts” through its contact tracing were isolated before testing positive, preventing further spread of the virus.

What else is being done to stop the spread?

The league entered what it called “intensive protocols” starting with the Thanksgiving Day games in Week 12. They include:

  • Meetings must be held virtually or outdoors, and everyone must wear face masks or shields during practice. In-person contacts among team members outside of the facility are prohibited, except for travel or games.
  • Cafeterias have grab-and-go food only, and the use of locker rooms is strongly discouraged, with reduced numbers of people allowed in certain places.
  • Players on the sidelines who are not substituting or preparing to enter the game and are not wearing their helmets must wear a mask or a double-layered gaiter. Coaches who choose to wear a face shield must also wear a face mask or double-layered gaiter in addition to the face shield.
  • Postgame interactions between opposing players or team staff will be limited. Players and team personnel must also wear masks and may briefly exchange greetings before promptly proceeding to their locker rooms.
  • The maximum number of players that may travel will be reduced to 62. All members of a team’s traveling party will be required to wear N95 or KN95 masks on both the team plane and also the team bus.

Are any players in danger of missing a playoff game?

Several. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara and the team’s entire running back group missed a 33-7 win over the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale Sunday after Kamara tested positive Friday and his fellow running backs were considered close contacts. Kamara could be eligible to come off the club’s COVID-19 list by Sunday’s playoff opener against the Chicago Bears, provided he remains asymptomatic.

The Cleveland Browns will be without coach Kevin Stefanski for their wild-card-round game Sunday night against the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers after he tested positive earlier this week. The first-year coach is a top candidate for NFL Coach of the Year honors after leading the Browns back to the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season.

The team will also be without Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, the team’s longest-tenured player. Bitonio tested positive Tuesday along with wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. They’ve joined several other players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, along with three other coaches who tested positive.

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The Steelers have their own COVID-19 issues. Starting cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Eric Ebron missed Sunday’s loss to the Browns after being placed on the COVID-19 list a day earlier. Haden tested positive; his status for the playoff game remains uncertain.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday and is expected to play against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.

Will any games be postponed?

It’s possible. However, the NFL has said that games will not be postponed for competitive reasons, but rather if an outbreak is not contained. The Ravens-Steelers game scheduled for Thanksgiving Day was postponed three times as the Ravens dealt with an ongoing outbreak, while the Denver Broncos were forced to play with a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback after the league determined that the spread of the virus was contained to starting quarterback Drew Lock and his backups.

Despite the Browns’ issues — eight rotational players and five coaches have contracted the virus — league spokesman Brian McCarthy told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the game was on schedule.

McCarthy added that the league is continuing to conduct contact tracing to identify possible high-risk close contacts.

“If any players or personnel are identified as such, they would remain apart from the team and facilities for five days from the last exposure to a positive individual,” McCarthy wrote in an email. “They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game.”

It’s still possible the Browns will lose other players after contact tracing is completed.

The genomic sequencing conducted by the league and its medical partner last week showed Cleveland’s cases were unconnected, meaning the cases came from outside and weren’t spread within the team’s headquarters. The Browns reported no new positive cases Wednesday.

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So … no playoff bubble?

Commissioner Roger Goodell last month downplayed the idea of a playoff bubble, similar to the ones used by the NBA and NHL during the summer to successfully complete their postseasons. “We feel strongly that our protocols are working,” he said.

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The NFL later said in a memo that teams cannot require players and staff members to stay at a hotel during the playoffs other than the night before a game. The choice to forego local bubbles was recommended by the league and NFL Players Association medical experts based on COVID-19 testing data, the NFL Network reported. Teams may still provide hotel rooms for players who choose to stay in one.

There were 34 new confirmed positive tests among players and 36 new confirmed positives among other personnel in the league’s latest COVID-19 results for Dec. 27 to Jan. 2.

Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, referred to three sources of exposure: household, outside medical providers and community/social settings.

Dawn Aponte, the league’s chief administrative officer for football operations, stressed that the “protocols will not change as we head into the postseason.”

“We also issued a memo that covered post-elimination protocols,” she said. “They apply for seven days following [a team’s] elimination, and include daily testing and other protocols that will remain in place. Following those seven days, the testing would be handed over to the club for how they would like to conduct that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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