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Fauci says decisions about playing football ‘still very much in flux’

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Although the nation’s top infectious disease specialist is not officially part of the decision-making for the NFL, he does advise strong interventions to ensure player, fan safety.

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, was a guest on the SiriusXM NFL Radio channel Thursday morning with hosts Bruce Murray and Kirk Morrison to discuss the COVID-19 virus both within the context of sports and the larger world.

And his comments on the state of the virus now and how that could impact the NFL - just as the league is figuring out how to get training camp underway, how to handle the preseason and how to host games this fall - provide really good insight for fans.

If there was one main takeaway from the 20-minute conversation it was that the novel coronavirus is like no other infectious respiratory disease the world has seen, which has complicated doing a uniform response and put everything very much still in a state of flux.

And this, of course, makes it difficult for sports league officials to make definitive plans and rules as positive cases of the novel coronavirus continue skyrocketing across most states.

This “disturbing resurgence” in cases as states have reopened (and many have had to “pause” or close down again), Fauci said, makes planning of any sort - whether it’s going back to work, getting kids back to school, or putting athletes back onto the playing field - a moving target and very difficult to scheme around while numbers are growing.

“If things were stable, we could make a plan. But we’re really in a state of flux. The situation is not in control,” Fauci told his hosts.

And since the best-case scenario for a coronavirus vaccine is the end of 2020 or early 2021, the NFL is going to have to make decisions amidst this uncertainty.

“Hopefully we will get in control as we start being more stringent on getting people to do things like wearing masks and staying physically separated,” he said. “Those are important interventions that are very important to opening anything, including sports.”

Like many health experts have been warning, the fall season could be an even bigger issue if the emergence of the regular flu overlaps with the coronavirus - making infections even more problematic. Fauci explained that since the coronavirus is not decreasing because of hot, muggy weather - something that is true of influenza - he is very concerned about what could happen in September/October/November when the very predictable flu season rolls around.

“We are in uncharted territory right now,” he said, adding that it will be very important for people to get the flu vaccine because “if there is a confluence of flu and covid-19, that’s really going to complicate matters.”

Fauci admitted there was “mixed messaging” early on about the importance of wearing masks, and he explained that part of that was due to a shortage of masks that were needed for first responders and hospital workers on the frontlines. But now that that’s not an issue, the one thing he is very clear on is the importance of the mask in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

And one of the main reasons for this is that they are finding between 20 and 45 percent of people testing positive are asymptomatic, so they don’t even know they have it. But then they pass it on and on and eventually it reaches someone who does have symptoms and could potentially be very vulnerable, possibly require hospitalization, possibly need intensive care, maybe even a ventilator.

“Right now, so many are infected and don’t know it but innocently pass it on,” Fauci said, adding that everyone “should be wearing a mask particularly now” even if they are feeling well. “What we didn’t fully appreciate (back in April) is it could spread in a way we didn’t know it could spread.”

So this has major implications in the world of sports. Although Fauci is in no way connected to the final decision making by league officials on getting their sports back, he serves as a consultant when called upon. Fauci was reluctant to tell his hosts whether he thought football could be back as normal in the fall, whether it should be back or even whether it could be 100 percent safe.

But he was very clear on how they need to be thinking about the decision - consider the safety of the athletes and consider the safety of the spectators.

To do this, he definitely believes constant testing of the players and staff at the facility is a necessity, particularly since “feeling fine” is clearly not a true test of whether players have the virus or not. Fauci also is in favor of highly isolating the players from outsiders. This would be on teams to really admonish their athletes to mingle only with family when not at practice and avoid a lot of contact with people outside their small circles.

When it comes to fans in the stands, though, Fauci was a lot less committed to giving advice, only to say “it’s very complicated” and he’s sure “authorities are taking it very seriously.”

Yesterday, The Athletic reported that one of those serious considerations is a page out of the Trump Tulsa rally playbook - liability waivers from fans who attend games.

The Athletic reported that the league is thinking of making fans who might attend an NFL game sign a liability waiver “shielding the teams from COVID-19 lawsuits,” according to sources. NFL teams could be considering this proposal as early as next week among other “best practices” for re-opening stadiums during the pandemic.

But a high-profile sports attorney told The Athletic it’s up for debate how legally binding these waivers may be.

“Strange things about waivers…they are fragile — often easily breakable,” wrote Bob Hilliard, a plaintiff’s attorney who has sued Major League Baseball on behalf of fans hit by foul balls, in an email to The Athletic.

Another attorney told The Athletic that while the waivers are questionable, they aren’t necessarily invalid.

“Waivers are governed by state law and speaking very generally and in over broad terms, are typically unenforceable depending on circumstances,” said Irwin Kishner, an attorney at Herrick Feinstein, which represents team owners. “Fans attending games, though, are assuming a level of risk by entering a stadium.”

Although Fauci was not asked about waivers, he was clear that public safety must be at the forefront of decision-making.

The hosts pressed him on whether it’s still a good idea to have football if cases are rising when the season would theoretically start. Fauci was again non-committal but hinted that it would be a dangerous proposition.

“I really can’t say yet...but if you get exponential spread, you have got to be very careful,” he said, adding that it’s so unpredictable that it would be “folly” at this point to decide.

But again, he emphasized at the very least people wearing masks and remaining at a safe distance.

“Masks are absolutely a very important part of the process of trying to prevent both acquisition of infection and transmission of infection,” he said, reminding everyone that masks do not restrict oxygen intake; if anything they are just a distraction as you hear yourself breathing. “If in fact there are games and there is virus in the community, it is absolutely essential that you have mandatory wearing of masks.”

Fauci also likes the idea of outfitting football helmets with a shield of some sort to help protect players. And the doctor again pointed out that the virus is hitting people who are young and healthy and in many cases does long-term damage to the lungs, heart and kidneys - and could be fatal - so is not something to take lightly.

“You’ve got to be careful. It may seem trivial as an individual, but you cannot guarantee you’re not going to get a serious consequence,” he said. “It’s a very perplexing infection.”

Poll

Would you attend an NFL game this fall if...

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    There are still increasing cases of the novel coronavirus
    (33 votes)
  • 3%
    Masks are required
    (16 votes)
  • 3%
    Fewer fans are allowed in the stands
    (16 votes)
  • 5%
    Broncos are 12-0 by December ;)
    (24 votes)
  • 55%
    Not going to any games regardless of safety measures in place
    (227 votes)
  • 4%
    All of the above
    (20 votes)
  • 18%
    Some, but not all, of the above
    (75 votes)
411 votes total Vote Now

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