Just three games into the 2020 NFL season, the Vikings have found themselves in the middle of a COVID-19 case study.
Minnesota had yet to have any positive cases as of Wednesday afternoon, but the team remains vigilant as the week progresses toward Sunday's scheduled game at Houston.
The Vikings previous opponent — the Tennessee Titans — has had multiple players and staff members who participated in Sunday's game test positive for coronavirus. Tennessee's status has prompted the postponement of its game Sunday against Pittsburgh.
The Vikings were contacted Tuesday morning around 9 a.m. when Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's Chief Medical Officer, phoned Vikings Vice President of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman and Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman. Information was relayed to Minnesota that multiple Tennessee Titans players and staff had tested positive.
Minnesota sent players, coaches and staff home, entirely clearing out Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center within an hour.
Coaches quickly pivoted to game-planning for Houston from remote locations.
TCO Performance Center remained closed Wednesday, with players participating in virtual meetings like they had for the offseason program.
"We expected this. When I say 'we,' the National Football League expected this to happen," said Sugarman, who also serves as the Vikings Infection Control Officer. "We're not going to make it through the whole season and not have some outbreaks, and my guess is this isn't going to be the last time that this happens. Hopefully it is for the Vikings, but you could expect this to happen again. And that's why the NFL and NFLPA have so well-prepared us for this with well-established protocols, and instead of being so reactive, we can be proactive and know what to do when a situation like this occurs."
Every NFL team formulated an infectious disease emergency response (IDER) program, and the Vikings immediately initiated it.
Sugarman said the robust testing and contact tracing program implemented by the NFL with an independent party help inform the Vikings on which of their own players and staff may have had close (15 minutes), moderate (10 minutes) or low-risk (five minutes) contact (as defined by the Centers for Disease Control) with infected individuals.
"Now obviously, on a football field, you're not going to have close contact, because the average football play lasts about six seconds," Sugarman said. "However, you do have continual contact for hours during a football game, so that is a consideration.
"We did have a few moderate-risk contacts that happened pregame, postgame, whatever it might be. You test them, you monitor them, but we get daily testing, so it's easy for us," Sugarman added. "That's what you're supposed to do, along with monitoring your symptoms. So we're all clear from that standpoint right now.
"There really are no documented cases of exposure through sport in our country yet. Sports are considered a low-risk activity — now football, being that it's a contact sport, is certainly probably at the highest risk of all sports," Sugarman continued. "And quite honestly, this is a case study. This is the first time this has happened: We have a known positive case that played in the game, and I think everyone is interested to see what's going to happen, if anything. That's why we're keeping such a close eye on what's going on."
Where do the Vikings go from here?
The hope is that the facility will reopen Thursday and that the game will proceed as scheduled for noon (CT) Sunday.
Sugarman said "very enhanced" protocols will be implemented at TCO Performance Center Thursday if the team is able to return.
In addition to the PCR tests that players have been undergoing that takes "24 hours or less, hopefully, to get back," everyone will undergo a point-of-care (POC) test that will take about 20 minutes. No one will be admitted until they have a negative PCR from Wednesday and a negative POC test Thursday morning.
After that, Sugarman said other enhanced protocols will include health screenings, temperature checks and personal protective equipment (PPE) with "masks at all times as well as social distancing at all times."
"We will keep a close eye on the situation," Sugarman said. "Our players have to be honest, our coaches and staff have to be honest about their symptoms. They have to be honest about being around anyone — husband, wife, girlfriend, child — that's sick that they live with, because that's how you bring this virus into the building.
"This is the invisible virus," he added. "You don't know you have it typically when you're contagious because it takes several days for the virus to, if you're going to get symptoms to 1) have you display the symptoms and 2) to test positive."
Spielman credited the plan that was formed between the NFL and NFL Players Association and cited the Vikings "dry run" for positive tests that occurred during training camp when multiple players experienced false positive tests with helping the current situation. Players were sent home immediately during a camp practice until the positive results were proven false.
"Sug' took immediate action on our plan when guys tested positive, how we removed them from the building, we followed the contact tracing, and post-contact protocol to remove those guys and give them a POC test and get them back in, and we were still able to have practice that day," Spielman said. "Unfortunately we had to go through that, but, fortunately, we've been through this one time. So we knew how to respond as an organization in the situation we're currently in right now."
Spielman also iterated that Head Coach Mike Zimmer emphasized to players during Wednesday's team meeting that the alterations for the Vikings while the Texans are able to proceed as normal should not be used as an excuse.
"Coach Zim's main focus … is getting this team ready to play. So if we can get a full day's practice tomorrow, Friday, a knocked-down version of a Friday practice potentially on Saturday before we get on the plane," Spielman said. "We're not looking at any excuses to make. This is what we're dealing with, and Coach Zim' made that a point of emphasis in the team meeting that we'll be ready and prepared to play on Sunday."
Aside from the normal prep for an 0-3 squad going to face another winless team, the question of availability being impacted by COVID-19 will linger.
"The CDC website will tell you that symptoms appear anywhere from day two to day 14, as well as a positive test," Sugarman said. "It seems like the sweet spot for a positive is between days three and five. So Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday are critical days for us. And we'll see what happens and we'll also have an eye on the Titans as well."