NFL’s chief medical officer against using bubble

The NFL’s chief medical officer came down hard Tuesday against shifting to a bubble environment amid the league’s run of positive COVID-19 test results, saying it wouldn’t be foolproof and citing the mental health risks of an extended period of social isolation.

Dr. Allen Sills reiterated during a conference call that the league has been discussing the bubble option since March, long before it was successfully implemented by multiple professional leagues across North America, including the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLS and NWSL. He said the league hasn’t ruled out the option of a bubble later this season.

But even after an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, nearly a dozen rescheduled games through Week 5 and a total of 47 confirmed infections across the league during the past two testing periods, Sills said: “We don’t feel that [concept] is the safest course of action.”

He added: “I think we all have to recognize that there are no perfect [solutions] here. First of all, a bubble is not going to keep out all infections. You still have other individuals that come in and out: service workers, security, other personnel. And we’ve known from other experiences that those individuals can be infected. So simply being in a bubble doesn’t keep us safe. We still have to do all these measures of mitigation, with PPE, with identifications of symptoms, with testing, etc.”

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the league’s competition committee, has voiced support for the idea of a playoff bubble. Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, acknowledged Tuesday that the idea remains under consideration. But the league and the NFL Players Association appear disinclined to institute a season-long bubble anytime soon.

Sills has said that the goal of the NFL’s COVID-19 approach is to mitigate, but not eliminate, the risk of infection — and then work quickly to isolate infected people to prevent an outbreak. Moving to a bubble, he suggested, could cause more distress than it prevents.

“Something that is not discussed when people talk about a bubble is the human and emotional and the behavioral health toll that that takes on people,” Sills said. “Imagine any one of us being sequestered away from our families, all of our loved ones, for three or four or five months on end. That’s a really significant stretch point. And I think that we have to acknowledge that as just as much of a health and safety consideration as is COVID infections. And particularly when talking about a holiday period that we’ve all grown to love and celebrate.”

The NFL and NFLPA are continuing to investigate the causes of the Titans’ outbreak. The league has changed several protocols that appear related to the Titans’ situation, from extending the testing intake period for newly signed players to elevating the risk assessment for people judged to be close contacts of someone who has a confirmed infection.

Titans players reportedly participated in at least one workout together after being instructed to isolate earlier this month, a violation of protocols if it happened. But commissioner Roger Goodell downplayed the possibility of a significant punishment toward the franchise.

“We have all been working,” Goodell said, “[from] the players association, our medical experts, our outside medical experts, the Tennessee Titans, every other club, [they] have all been working to continue to put the protocols in place and make sure that we modify any protocols that might need clarity and might need changes and work to keep our personnel safe, [along with] players, coaches, team, game operations personnel. That focus has really been working well. We are really working closely in identifying and speaking to clubs and players and open dialogue. This is not about discipline. This is about making sure we’re keeping our personnel safe and that’s been our entire focus to date.”

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