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NFL chief medical officer sees COVID-19 test scare as ‘opportunity’

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The NFL’s chief medical officer views this weekend’s flood of false positive COVID-19 test results as a beneficial teaching tool, and he remains encouraged by the responses of the teams impacted by the results and the low numbers of actual positive cases that the league has seen in recent weeks.

“This has been a tremendous learning opportunity for us,” Dr. Allen Sills told reporters on a conference call Monday afternoon. “We said all along that we would learn a great deal as we move through this protocol, because we’re doing something that’s never been done before.

“We’re testing every day with surveillance tests in a very broad population across 32 different sites at a scale that’s never been done before. So, as such, we know that we’re going to learn along the way. We’ve seen that happen already and certainly the events of this weekend demonstrated that fact again, and as a result of what happened this weekend, our protocols will improve. We will get better, our procedures will get better and certainly, we’ll be better positioned to continue to meet the challenges of operating safely amid this pandemic.”

More: NFL Players Association investigating whether COVID-19 protocols were followed during false positive episode

Los Angeles Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer wears a face mask during training camp at Cal Lutheran University. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

Sills echoed a statement issued Monday morning by testing partner BioReference Laboratories that it was determined the 77 false positive test results were contaminated during the testing process in an area of the regional lab that serves a number of NFL teams. 

It’s believed that once inside the lab, the materials were contaminated while being transported into the analyzer, according to Sills, who described the process as delicate and highly complex.

The flood of positive tests set off alarms because until this weekend, the NFL’s testing numbers had been extremely low.

From Aug. 12-20, the NFL administered a total of 58,397 tests to 8,573 players and personnel members across its 32 facilities. A total of 23,260 tests were administered to players, and 35,137 tests were administered to personnel, Sills said. During that time, no players tested positive for COVID-19, and there were only six new confirmed positives among other personnel.

“It’s important to recognize (the numbers) because that then plays into the events of this weekend and how we and our testing partner were aware so quickly of the test situation that we had,” Sills said. “I think it reflects the fact that our positive test rate has been so low that it immediately jumped out to us that something was going on.”

The laboratory is administering more meticulous procedures in an attempt to ensure that samples do not get contaminated during the evaluation process again.

Sills stressed that although improvements are expected to help, testing alone will not keep players and personnel completely safe. As a result, the league and NFLPA officials remain in talks on how to improve protocol surrounding the minimizing the spread of coronavirus.

It remains unclear how the league will conduct testing leading up to regular-season games. Sills said those discussions remain ongoing, but the goal is to ensure teams get the most accurate and up-to-date information before game time so they have time to re-test any unconfirmed positives and guard against putting infected asymptomatic players on the field.

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