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Humphrey, McDonald Cases Show Significant Flaw in NFL’s Testing Protocol



For the second straight week, the Pittsburgh Steelers played a game with a player that was COVID-19 positive.

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald received a positive test result on Monday from a test that was taken before the team’s win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. The same thing occurred the week before, when Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey tested positive.

PCR tests, the most accurate form of testing available for the novel coronavirus, take about 24 hours to turn around, so tests taken on Sunday before the game are not read until Monday.

When it comes to the timing of the virus showing up on a test, that presents a significant loophole in the NFL’s testing protocol. Both Humphrey and McDonald missed practice earlier in the week after exhibiting symptoms, but subsequently tested negative and were allowed to play in the game.

It’s not as if this is news. An August study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed a 100% chance of a false negative the day after COVID-19 exposure and a 67% of a false negative on the fourth day. Even after subjects began exhibiting symptoms, there was a 38% false negative rate.

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There are tests that turn around the results more quickly that would help eliminate that lag time between the positive sample being taken and the positive result being read. But those tests have the opposite problem. They’re prone to false positives, something the NFL fears could throw competitive balance out of whack by holding players out of games on Sundays that are not actually positive.

It appears that the risk of on-field transmission is fairly low. Humphrey’s positive case did not result in a significant outbreak for either the Steelers or Ravens to this point (it’s not clear and probably won’t be if McDonald’s case and the positive test of a Steelers staff member are related to Humphrey’s.) There has not been a proven case of on-field COVID-19 transmission, though with the current level of community spread, it is very hard to prove.

More troubling is the fact that McDonald flew with the Steelers to Dallas, likely resulting in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being held out of practice this week after being deemed a close contact of McDonald.

Unless the NFL makes changes to its testing protocols in order to provide more immediate day-of-game testing, cases like Humphrey and McDonald should be expected to continue, and perhaps increase as the level of community spread is increasing, as well.

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