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Uptick in COVID-19 infections will test the NFL in Week 17

The Browns have had a rash of positive COVID-19 tests as they prepare for a critical Week 17 game against the Steelers. Mike Florio and Chris Simms look at the issues Cleveland and the NFL are facing.

The Browns have seen a sharp increase in players placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. But the infections aren’t happening in the facility.

As the NFL explained earlier this week, the various positives and close contacts in Cleveland have resulted from infections happening in the community, not from a spread of the virus in the team’s facility or when players and coaches are otherwise in the same place at the same time. That’s definitely good news, but there’s an element of potential bad news connected to it.

The two major donut holes for the NFL’s pandemic season come from the incubation period and the daily delay between sample collection and the generation of test results. This means that a player or coach or other critical staff member can show up in the morning, give a sample, spend the day in the facility among others, and then receive word that night or the next morning that he was positive for COVID-19 (and shedding virus) all day long.

That becomes an even bigger problem on game days, when players and coaches and others are necessarily in closer contact than on normal work days. Although more and more players and coaches seem to be wearing masks on the sidelines (some still need a refresher regarding the lone design flaw in a mask, i.e., that it must actually cover the mouth and nose), the contacts that happen in stadium locker rooms (especially for the visiting team) and on sidelines and on the field could create a bigger risk of exposure than workweek interactions.

So with an increase in players testing positive (on Wednesday, seven of the eight players who landed on the COVID-19 reserve list had a positive test result) due to the ongoing spike in infections throughout the non-football population, the playing of 16 games on Sunday could present the biggest risk yet of exposure. It seems inevitable that some of the people who give samples on Sunday morning will end up generating positive tests, which will mean that they spent game day shedding virus in the locker room, on the sideline, and on the field.

This means that all teams need to be more careful than ever this Sunday, especially since infections that emerge in the days following the final day of the regular season could keep teams from properly preparing for the six wild-card games that will be played next Saturday and Sunday.

It that happens, it will not delay the playing of playoff games. The NFL and the NFL Players Association continue to adhere to the reality that games won’t be postponed for competitive reasons, but only for health reasons. Absent a full-blown outbreak that has yet to be contained, playoff teams will be required to play, even if they can’t practice and even if they are missing a large portion of the roster.

How many players must be unavailable before the league would give a playoff team a pass? The number is somewhere between one and all but eleven, and the number is surely much closer to all but eleven than one.