Incubation period, testing lag continue to be the NFL’s COVID donut holes

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The NFL believes that, if teams follow all protocols to a “T”, there will be no outbreaks. That’s just not realistic, for two important reasons.

First, the incubation period creates a natural delay between exposure and infection, making it impossible to know with who will be shedding virus — until they eventually test positive.

That’s apparently what happened with Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of roughly 20 Patriots who had close contact with quarterback Cam Newton. Unless Gilmore got the virus in some other way, he was exposed to Newton before Newton tested positive based on a sample collected on Friday, and it took several days for Gilmore to provide a sample that tested positive, on Tuesday.

The chain reaction can now continue, given that Gilmore surely has had close contact with others between exposure to Newton and testing positive. Whether on the plane to and from Kansas City or on the field and sideline for three hours on Monday night, Gilmore may have been shedding virus, others may have been infected, and now we play the waiting game as the incubation period does, or doesn’t, unfold in those who did, or didn’t, catch it from Gilmore.

Second, the lag between sample collection and the communication of news of a positive result to a team allows the virus to spread. As one source explained it to PFT, the time varies based on the proximity of the facility to a testing lab. Some teams get their results that night. Others get them early the next morning. Others get them roughly 24 hours after collection.

During that window between collection and communication of a positive result, the player goes about his normal business, potentially having close contact with others and potentially shedding virus that infects others.

Although the league seems to be determined to seal off the potential pathways to exposure in the facility, the locker room, the plane, or the bus, the fact remains that there will be inevitable positives (absent a much-needed city-by-city bubble) and that virus will be shed in the presence of others, especially on the field during practices or games. The complications presented by the incubation period and the testing lag make that inevitable, which means that every positive test will be followed by a week or so of waiting and wondering whether there will be more.

Thus, the league shouldn’t accept that positives will happen and hope to contain them. Instead, the league should strive to avoid all positives. And there’s only one way to do that: Put all teams in a hotel for the rest of the season.