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Ravens’ COVID-19 outbreak illustrates vulnerability of even NFL’s best-prepared teams to pandemic

In early August, three months before a coronavirus outbreak that would deplete his roster, sicken one of his top players and call into question a staff member’s conduct, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he couldn’t imagine many places safer than the team’s facility.

”You want to rank them, we are in the top five, I’ll tell you that, across the country,” he said Aug. 7, more than a week before the start of padded practices in Owings Mills. “So we’re right up there with anybody. We get tested every day, and we are wearing masks everywhere.”

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For nearly three months, Harbaugh was right: Amid a pandemic, football was a haven. As infections in the United States mounted and the country’s death toll rose, the Ravens were safe. No positive tests. No symptoms. It was a season that required face masks, virtual meetings and plexiglass partitions, but it was a season just the same.

Now, with 13 reported positive COVID-19 tests over the past nine days creating one of the biggest outbreaks in sports, the Ravens’ schedule is in flux. Amid a wave of infections in Baltimore, including star quarterback Lamar Jackson, the team’s Thanksgiving Day matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed to Sunday afternoon, and then to Tuesday night.

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Even if the Ravens’ outbreak is contained by the time they have to leave for Pittsburgh, there is no guarantee the game would be held. On Friday, three Steelers players were ruled out because they’d either tested positive or been exposed to the virus. On Saturday, Pittsburgh running back James Conner and a coach tested positive, and the possibility of exposure to other team members threw the game into further doubt.

The episode has illustrated the vulnerability of even the NFL’s best-prepared teams to a pandemic that’s claimed over 260,000 American lives, shut down cities and transformed daily life. When the Ravens returned to their facility this summer to prepare for a season with Super Bowl potential, they believed they could live up to the mantra printed for them on T-shirts: Test negative, stay positive.

The past week has shown how difficult that can be.

“We all knew that us playing football would put us at a bigger risk,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said Monday, the first of what’s become six consecutive days of reported positive tests. “We knew we [could] obviously get the virus, and we all knew that this wasn’t something to be played around with.”

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Injuries in any NFL season are inevitable. Before this season, Harbaugh seemed to accept that COVID-19 infections would be, too. The pandemic had changed how Ravens dined at the team cafeteria, how they interacted in the facility, even how they showered, “but that doesn’t mean you are going to win 100% of the time,” Harbaugh said in August.

“You can’t test your way out of this,” he added. “You can’t protocol your way out of this, either. This is going to run its course.”

But through the season’s first two months, the Ravens (6-4) kept the virus at a distance. The team didn’t lose a player to the reserve/COVID-19 list — designated for players who have tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to the virus — until Week 6, when defensive tackle Brandon Williams was held out of an Oct. 18 win against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Even that decision was precautionary; Williams hadn’t tested positive, but under the NFL’s protocols, his close exposure to an infected person required him to self-quarantine for at least five days while he continued daily testing.

In early November, the Ravens’ season started to go sideways. A day after the Ravens squandered a chance to knock off a 6-0 Steelers team in Baltimore, All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey announced he’d tested positive. Seven teammates, including four defensive starters, were identified as “high-risk” close contacts a day later, and the team entered the NFL’s intensive protocol, which requires virtual meetings and face masks at practice.

All seven teammates were cleared to return for that week’s game, a win over the Indianapolis Colts, and Humphrey was back by the start of practice the next week. But the incident illustrated how quickly an event like the Ravens’ current outbreak could consume a team.

The team hasn’t practiced since Monday, when Harbaugh announced that running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins had tested positive for COVID-19. The tests had been taken one day earlier, before the team’s second straight loss and third in four games, an overtime defeat against the Tennessee Titans.

Subsequent contact tracing determined that Williams, who hadn’t played in the loss to the Titans because of an ankle injury, was a close contact. The team briefly closed its facility Monday, and after contact tracing was completed, the Under Armour Performance Center was reopened later in the day. The team held a walk-through, with masks required, Monday evening.

By late Tuesday morning, the team announced all activities would be conducted virtually, “with the health and safety of players and staff remaining the highest priority.” The Ravens haven’t been in their facility since, and 18 total players have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list since Harbaugh reported Ingram and Dobbins’ positive tests.

An overwhelming majority on that list have reportedly tested positive, including Jackson, who’s set to miss Tuesday’s game while in quarantine. Another of the Ravens’ stars, Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, indicated Friday on Twitter that he was symptomatic, which could delay his return to team activities. He called the virus “brutal” and said he prayed that “no one else has to go thru this.”

It’s unclear what impact the team’s decision to reopen the facility had on its outbreak. But given the timing of the Ravens’ early cases, it’s reasonable to believe exposure first occurred in the lead-up to the Titans game, one public health researcher said. Reserve quarterback Trace McSorley was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list two days before the game, reportedly for testing positive.

The NFL has been administering two forms of COVID-19 testing as part of its protocols: daily PCR tests, which are more accurate but can take up to 24 hours to return results, and rapid-response antigen tests, used to confirm positive tests and identify active cases in the case of an outbreak.

Most people who test positive for COVID-19 are likely to do so when they first become symptomatic — about five to six days after exposure, according to Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Other factors could delay a positive test, such as a sample that was collected improperly, or an undetectable viral load.

“It’s not surprising that you’d have people test negative up to, like, Day 5 and then test positive,” Lessler said in a phone interview.

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Lessler said those who have been exposed to the virus aren’t nearly as infectious early on in its incubation period. But in the days leading up to the Ravens’ outbreak, there was a range of possible transmissions.

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Facial coverings have long been mandatory inside the team’s Owings Mills facility. But until Monday, the NFL had only recommended that players wear masks while on the sidelines during games and in stadium locker rooms. They are now required.

On Wednesday, the Ravens disciplined a staff member for “conduct surrounding the recent COVID-19 cases that have affected players and staff.” Multiple sources told The Baltimore Sun that head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders was the staff member punished; he had not routinely worn the proximity tracker required by the NFL for contact tracing or reported potential COVID-19 symptoms as he worked with players.

“These public health responses like contact tracing are built on trust, and you really need people to be willing to give you details,” Lessler said. “And you also need them to be willing, when you say, ‘Hey you’ve been exposed to the virus. You need to stay home for the next 10 or 14 days,’ to actually do that. And I think that as the pandemic has gone on, for a variety of reasons, that has proven to be a challenge.”

Lessler said that, given the time that has passed since the Ravens’ cases first surfaced, and the NFL’s precautions surrounding the virus, they would probably be safe to play Tuesday night. Six Ravens were added to the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday, but a source said several had been deemed close contacts, and that because of the team’s ongoing quarantine, they could be activated within days.

The next two days could shape the rest of the Ravens’ season. If the NFL deems Tuesday night’s game playable, the Ravens will not only be without Jackson, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, but also four other Pro Bowl players. Their depth at certain positions would be almost inconceivably limited; the Ravens have just two defensive ends and one defensive tackle on their 53-man roster, with another tackle on their practice squad.

But if the NFL postpones Tuesday’s game for a third time, another set of problems would arise. Rather than playing the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 3, the Ravens likely would have to face them Thursday night, as originally scheduled. Their game against Pittsburgh could be pushed back to a potential Week 18 — one week after the regular season’s set to end — or it could not be made up at all.

With the country’s battle against the pandemic expected to intensify this winter, nothing in the NFL is safe.

“The Corona is everywhere,” Humphrey tweeted Saturday, after news of the Steelers’ positive cases emerged. “Ain’t no stopping it.”

RAVENS@STEELERS

Tuesday, 8 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4 Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Steelers by 7 1/2

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