Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck criticized the NHL's decision to pause its season, a move which made it the first North American professional sports league to halt its schedule amid an unprecedented global spike in COVID-19 cases, driven by the rise of the Omicron variant.
"It’s a little overkill," Hellebuyck said Tuesday. "You see leagues like the NFL that are adapting and, I think, doing things right. It sucks but it’s Christmas time, use it as a break, see family and enjoy what we have."
The NFL and its players' association have re-configured the league's COVID-19 protocols multiple times. Under latest guidelines, the league scaled back its testing, deciding that only unvaccinated players and those who experience possible symptoms of COVID-19 will be tested.
Before that, the NFL and NFLPA updated protocols to allow asymptomatic vaccinated players to return sooner if they have two negative tests on the same day, or one negative test and an antibody test showing the individual has reached a certain level.
The moves came at a time of the season during which the NFL set a single-day high in players’ positive tests, and more than 130 players total placed on teams' COVID-19 reserve lists, reigniting a debate over postponing games -- an option the league had adamantly opposed in the past, going as far as saying forfeits "could be in play."
"I would not describe it as, 'we’re stopping testing for vaccinated players,'" Dr. Allen Sills, the chief medical officer of the NFL, said Saturday. "We’re trying to test smarter and in a more strategic fashion."
Moving away from daily testing aligns with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the broader population, which advised that vaccinated individuals do not need to be tested unless they are exposed to the coronavirus or show symptoms.
However, the rapid spread of Omicron -- both within sports teams and the communities they play in -- has brought the importance of testing back into the spotlight. On a national level in the United States, the Biden administration has said it will buy 500 million rapid tests to distribute to the public for free as well as set up federal testing sites in the lead up to Christmas, underscoring the importance of testing when it comes to controlling community spread.
Currently in the NHL, players are subject to frequent testing -- daily, at the moment -- whether they exhibit symptoms or not.
Other protocols have been strengthened by the NHL recently too, including players and coaches being prohibited from eating indoors at restaurants and bars, and being encouraged to wear masks indoors.
"I think it’s doing a lot more harm than good,” Hellebuyck said of the NHL's COVID-19 protocols over the weekend, though he didn't specify which measures. “Everyone I’ve talked to, they’re in agreeance with that. We need to be informed and then we need to be able to make our own decisions."
Despite the changes, cases have continued to surge in the NHL. More than 132 players were in the league's COVID-19 protocols as of Tuesday, fuelling the league's decision to postpone all activities and implement a league-wide shutdown from Wednesday through at least Christmas Day.
The NBA, which has had dozens of players enter health and safety protocols recently, imperilling the league's high-profile Christmas Day games, has said players will be tested daily for two weeks starting Dec. 26.
The NFL doesn't encounter the same hurdle of cross-border travel that the NHL and NBA do, and instead chose to rely on self-reporting of symptoms to identify who is in need of testing. The tactic, which doesn't account for the possibility of asymptomatic transmission of the virus, has also spurred uncertainty about whether players -- faced with the possibility of missing a start if they test positive -- will consistently self-report their symptoms accurately.
"I think that the NFL players and the coaches have to be professional and know that they don’t want to be putting other people at risk," Adalja said. "They shouldn’t be playing sick, but that’s obviously going to be as good as the honesty of the people there."
Editor's Note: The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country's public health website for the latest.
Across the NFL, NBA and NHL, vaccination rates are high -- especially relative to the general population.
Around 95 per cent of NBA and NFL players are vaccinated, as of mid-December. Only one NHL player, Tyler Bertuzzi, has not been inoculated against the virus. Across all age groups in the United States, only 61 per cent of the general population has been vaccinated, reflecting the challenges the country has faced in navigating vaccine hesitancy.
At the start of the Jets training camp this season, Hellebuyck, a native of Michigan, was among those who had initial reservations about the vaccines despite the overwhelming body of evidence showing they were safe.
"It felt very forced on me. Just where I am with my health, I had just gotten COVID and gotten over it, and then I had to get the vax,” Hellebuyck said at the time. "If I had gotten some time to choose, maybe I would have gotten what they recommended three months later."
Even with the rise of Omicron, which has proved to be highly transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines than other variants of the coronavirus, leading to the influx of breakthrough cases — infections among vaccinated peoples — vaccinations are still expected to be a key tool in preventing the worst outcomes of the virus.
The C.D.C. has said that two doses of current vaccines offer meaningful protection against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant. With booster shots, there is evidence showing vaccines provide strong protection against infection from Omicron too — making them a potential game-changer as hospitals strain against increased patient numbers and staff burnout.
Initial studies have also offered hope that Omicron could cause less severe disease than other forms of the virus, despite it being two to three times as likely to spread as the Delta variant, though further work must be done before a fully clear picture of Omicron emerges.
In the highly-vaccinated NHL, most individuals so far who have tested positive during the recent outbreak that are symptomatic have reported mild symptoms, but it is not yet known what kind of -- if any -- long-term impacts contracting the Omicron variant will have.