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Ravens say ‘highly contagious’ COVID-19 strain, noncompliance with protocols led to outbreak

A “highly contagious” strain of COVID-19 and noncompliance with NFL protocols led to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in sports, Ravens president Dick Cass said in a statement Saturday.

In the organization’s most extensive comments about an outbreak that altered the NFL’s schedule, depleted the Ravens’ roster, and infected players, coaches and staff members, along with family members, Cass said the NFL learned that “at least four unique strains” of COVID-19 entered the Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills.

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Three of the four were stopped, Cass said, but the fourth spread throughout the organization.

“From the outset, we have taken the virus seriously, very seriously,” Cass said in the statement. “The NFL, [NFL Players Association] and their medical experts developed a protocol with the health and safety of every organization in mind. Throughout the season, the NFL has updated the protocol to reflect new knowledge about the coronavirus and its spread. We believe in the protocol and made every effort to adhere to it. We strive not only to ‘play like a Raven’ but also to ‘comply like a Raven.’ "

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Starting on Nov. 22 with running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins, at least one Ravens player reported a positive test for COVID-19 for 10 straight days, including the day before a thrice-delayed game against the rival Steelers. Missing nine starters, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens lost in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, 19-14, throwing their postseason chances into further doubt.

Jackson was among 23 Ravens in that span added to the reserve/COVID-19 list, designated for players who, like Jackson, have tested positive for COVID-19 or are considered a “high-risk” close contact. Ten Ravens still remain on the list, and Jackson has yet to practice ahead of Tuesday’s critical game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Coach John Harbaugh, taking questions Wednesday for the first time since the outbreak, acknowledged that the Ravens “didn’t bat 1.000” in how they’d handled the situation. In postgame interviews, players voiced their frustrations about the opaque decision-making process and the shortcomings of contact tracing.

Cass said Saturday that the NFL’s coronavirus protocols are “only as effective as our weakest link.” The Ravens have not identified members of the organization connected to the outbreak, but they previously announced that one staff member had been disciplined for their conduct.

Multiple sources said head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders had not routinely worn a proximity tracker or mask, as required by league rules, and had not reported potential COVID-19 symptoms as he worked with players.

“With a dangerous virus like this, everyone must comply with the protocol to avoid infecting many,” Cass said. “We now know that not everyone at the Ravens followed the protocol thoroughly.”

The NFL is reportedly investigating the Ravens for protocol violations. Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday that the team has been “incredibly cooperative with us in getting our arms around this outbreak.”

Depending on the outcome of league and NFLPA investigations, the Ravens could face significant fines and the loss of draft picks. The New England Patriots recently were fined $350,000 for protocol violations related to a cluster of infections in October, according to reports. The Ravens are first-time offenders, as the Patriots were, but given the NFL’s recent crackdown, the league could levy harsher punishments.

“We cannot undo what has occurred. But, we can do our best to learn from what has happened and be vigilant moving forward to ensure that it does not happen again,” Cass said. “As the recent experience has shown us, this virus does not need a large opening to spread within an organization, and 99% compliance is not a passing grade when dealing with this virus.

“To our community, our neighbors, our fans and families, we say: Please learn from what happened here. This virus is serious. Very serious. Please take care of yourselves and your loved ones. Let’s beat this virus together.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Daniel Oyefusi contributed to this story.

COWBOYS@RAVENS

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