Dr. Fauci cautions ‘football may not happen this year’

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The NFL’s off-season programs are well underway, the schedule has long been released and studied by fans, and training camps are approaching. But despite all the special preparations and protocols being developed amid the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci believes we still need to be prepared for the possibility of no football at all.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci, the U.S. director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Thursday.

The pandemic has brought the sports world to a screeching halt, forcing leagues to suspend, postpone and outright cancel seasons and events. Football’s fall start has meant the NCAA and the NFL have so far been largely spared the difficulty of restructuring their seasons.

The NFL pivoted parts of its off-season, conducting a virtual draft and moving team programs online. It also canceled upcoming international games in London and Mexico City, but it appears intent to operate on schedule with pre-season set to open Aug. 6 and the 2020 campaign scheduled for kick-off Sept. 10.

But that fall start date could prove especially problematic, as Dr. Fauci pointed out:

“If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year,” Dr. Fauci said.

In response to Dr. Fauci’s cautionary comments, Dr. Allen Sill, the NFL’s chief medical officer, issued a statement outlining the NFL’s current attempts to ensure a safe start to its season is possible.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL players association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches and other essential personnel,” Dr. Sill’s statement said. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem.”

The NFL’s approach, according to Dr. Sills, is being undertaken based on the collective guidance of public health officials — including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts and other sports leagues.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task,” Dr. Sill’s statement said. “We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”

That approach though, at this time, does not seem to include a “bubble” concept, as Dr. Fauci advised. Yesterday, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that the NFL will focus its efforts this season on testing and contact tracing as opposed to the “bubble” approach we’re seeing from the NHL and NBA as they try to start up again.

“We do not feel it’s practical or appropriate to construct a bubble,” Dr. Sills said, via Pelissero, on Wednesday. “Anyone who tests positive will be isolated until medically appropriate to return.”

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