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NFL is taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach with COVID-19

The league is keeping players out of practice who have experienced cold and flu symptoms even if they have tested negative for the coronavirus

Eagles tackle Jason Peters (left) is one of several players to have been listed on the team's injury report this season with illness.
Eagles tackle Jason Peters (left) is one of several players to have been listed on the team's injury report this season with illness.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

NFL injury reports have looked a little different this season. While there have been the usual number of hamstring, calf, ankle, quad, rib, and shoulder injuries, there has also been an inordinate number of players missing practices because of illness, which is something you rarely saw in previous years.

At the league’s instruction, teams have been shutting down players, often for multiple days, if they have exhibited any flu-like symptoms, even if they have tested negative for COVID-19, until they can do more extensive testing.

“You have seen, and certainly will see, more players, coaches, and staff out of the [practice] facility for one or two or three days, possibly even including game day, because of the report of symptoms,” Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. "That doesn’t always mean there’s been a confirmed COVID test or case. It’s just an abundance of caution that we’re using in these situations.

“There are many other illnesses that can cause the same symptoms [as COVID]. But because there’s so much overlap, we always have to assume it could be COVID.”

The NFL has had several players test positive for COVID in recent weeks, prompting the rescheduling of games and the closing of practice facilities.

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The Tennessee Titans didn’t practice for nearly two weeks as they dealt with the league’s biggest COVID outbreak. But the NFL continues to soldier on, hopeful that it can live with the coronavirus and play the season.

“Our goal is to move forward and try to live with this virus and continue to allow our teams to operate as long as it appears safe to do so,” Sills said. “But we’ve also clearly said we’re going to be informed by what our situation is, by what our data is showing us, and also by the public health data.”

Sills said the league always is going to “err on the side of safety,” which is why it is keeping players with flu-like symptoms out of practices, even if they have a negative COVID test result.

“Just because someone has one negative test, we can’t say they’re absolutely not infected,” Sills said. "So when someone reports symptoms, even if they have a negative test that same day, we’re going to hold that individual out of the facility.

“Everyone has the same goal here. And that’s to operate as safely as we can. Our goal is not to put someone on the field that we think might actively be infected. If it turns out that we kept someone out of a practice or game because of non-COVID symptoms, then we would all be happy with that outcome.”

While players and coaches around the league have tested positive for COVID, the league hasn’t yet found any evidence of any on-field transmission, even though very few players are wearing face shields.

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Still, this week, after a player for the Atlanta Falcons tested positive for COVID, the league not only shut down the Falcons' practice facility, it also closed the facility of the team it played Sunday, the Carolina Panthers, even though the Panthers haven’t had anyone test positive yet for COVID.

“We’ve said consistently since March that we want to have the safest possible team environments we can," Sills said, "and we want to be responsible members of the larger community when it comes to public health.”