The popular sentiment out there is that the US has gotten through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the various types of COVID-19 vaccines became available for public distribution, the US has made a concerted effort to get as much of the population vaccinated as possible. Case numbers across the nation started to significantly decrease and more aspects of our pre-pandemic lives started to return. You saw fewer mask requirements and more people at public events, to include sporting events. Especially compared to the rest of the world, it appeared that COVID was all but done in America.
Yet, somebody forgot to tell COVID-19 that is the case. COVID-19 case numbers are starting to rise again in various parts of the country, especially in areas with significant numbers of unvaccinated players. This uptick is impacting the sporting world. Just this past week, a New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox game was postponed when six Yankee players (most of them vaccinated) tested positive for COVID-19. While individual players still are placed on health and safety protocols in various sports, from baseball, golf and the Olympics, there had not been any major cancellation of games/events on a team for some time…at least until now.
For the NFL, there is a two-tiered system for COVID-19 protocols. For those who are vaccinated, the requirements regarding mask wearing/daily testing/strict isolation requirements/prohibition on non-football related activities no longer apply. Additionally, teams that reported 85% or greater of players vaccinated could open training camps with the drastically reduced COVID-19 protocols (as of this past week). Given how rough that could be on players last year, there is plenty of incentive to get vaccinated and regain some lost freedoms. Yet, in recent reporting, two NFL franchises have less than 50% of players and team personnel vaccinated (Washington, Indianapolis). The same reports indicated that at least four franchises are over 85% vaccination rates (Pittsburgh, Miami, Carolina, Denver) with an unconfirmed total of ten teams exceeding that threshold.
Given the sensitive nature of medical information, we do not know which players are confirmed vaccinated and which players are not. Additionally, we do not know the reasons for the 4 teams with the low vaccination numbers. However, we seem to know that the Texans do not appear in the bottom 2 or the top 4. Perhaps this is a positive, given that in nearly every other poll/ranking scheme, the Texans have a stranglehold on the #32 position. While we don’t know exact numbers for vaccinated Texans players, a recent interview with Texans Head Coach David Culley indicated that the team was in “good shape” as far as vaccinations went.
While there is no move to alter the plan for the NFL stadiums to have max or near-max capacity for the coming 2021 season, the recent rise of COVID-19 numbers and impact on sporting events should give us some pause. Most could recall the number of games that were shifted to weird times last year (think the Steelers/Ravens matchup that got flexed from Thanksgiving night to that vaunted Wednesday mid-afternoon broadcast time) The recent impact to the New York/Boston matchup, the sole MLB game with a projected primetime audience this past Thursday right after the All-Star Break should remind sports fans that COVID can still disrupt our sporting pleasures.
While there are ever more opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the US, there are vast swaths of the country that will not take advantage of those opportunities. Again, the reasons are varied, either by necessity or by choice. This article will not address those debates, most of which likely dominate your respective favored news source/social media preferences. However, with a rise in new variants in COVID-19, and reporting that shows lower numbers than expected vaccinations of team personnel, the disruptions that so overshadowed sports in 2020 are not leaving the field for 2021.
Hopefully, those vaccination numbers will increase, the NFL season will be able to kick off on time with nearly full houses and we can fully enjoy the coming season (even for the forlorn Texans fans). However, we cannot ignore that COVID-19 still exists in the world. The various vaccines did not eradicate it, not even close. As a result, it could return to disrupt the sporting world. While those vaccinated should have greater defenses against its impacts, vaccination alone cannot assure that COVID-19 won’t return to upend schedules. The Texans, aside from the loss of a few defensive players from a Week 9 tilt at Jacksonville, did not see a major disruption to their schedule in 2020. [Your respective religious affiliation figurehead] willing, they will not see a COVID-driven one in 2021.