'It wasn't fun': Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski details COVID-19 false positive scare

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal
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BEREA, Ohio – Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski revealed Monday he was among the members of his team who had a false positive COVID-19 result from Saturday’s testing.

A total of 77 tests taken Saturday from 11 NFL teams produced positive results after being processed at the same lab in New Jersey, a person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports, confirming an NFL Network report. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the figure.

All 77 point of care tests came back negative and all of the original results were re-tested and returned as negative, too, the person said.

“It wasn’t fun,” Stefanski said during a Zoom video conference with Browns beat writers. “I can laugh about it now, but truly it wasn’t fun to have that phone call very early in the morning and not get the news that it was potentially an error until later. It’s something I take seriously, and our whole goal with our players and our staff is to keep everybody safe.”

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Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski during training camp at the Cleveland Browns training facility.

NFL and NFL Players Association rules prohibited Stefanski from coaching Sunday’s practice because of his positive test result, so defensive coordinator Joe Woods ran the 50-minute, non-padded session. Stefanski was left to watch a seven-on-seven drill on his iPad.

“It’s kind of like a bad dream when practice is going on and you’re not there,” Stefanski said. “It felt pretty strange.”

Stefanski said it took about four hours Sunday for him to learn his test result was a false positive. He regained entrance to Browns headquarters after receiving a second negative test result Monday, when the team returned to its routine with a 2:25 p.m. start for the ninth full-squad practice of training camp.

“It was a very interesting morning,” Stefanski said. “I will tell you that our organization mobilized immediately. We got on top of it, followed the protocols and ultimately it was a fire drill, as it’s been called, but it was great reminder that we have to trust our protocols and make sure we’re doing everything the right way and prepared as always.”

A Browns spokesman said the team had 12 players who received test results shortly before the start of Monday’s practice, allowing them to participate on time. The Browns, Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings were among the teams affected.

Asked about testing snafus potentially interfering with the upcoming season – the Browns are scheduled to open Sept. 13 in Baltimore – Stefanski said the franchise would simply continue to follow the appropriate protocols.

The NFL uses BioReference Laboratories for its COVID-19 testing. In a statement released Monday morning, Dr. Jon R. Cohen, the company’s executive chairman, released the following statement:

“On August 22, BioReference Laboratories reported an elevated number of positive COVID-19 PCR test results for NFL players and personnel at multiple clubs. The NFL immediately took necessary actions to ensure the safety of the players and personnel. Our investigation indicated that these were most likely false positive results, caused by an isolated contamination during test preparation in the New Jersey laboratory. Reagents, analyzers and staff were all ruled out as possible causes and subsequent testing has indicated that the issue has been resolved. All individuals impacted have been confirmed negative and informed.”

Stefanski said he received a phone call a little after 4 a.m. Sunday alerting him of his positive test result. The father of three young children then left his home on Cleveland’s West Side and isolated in a condominium near the team’s training facility. He said he felt a great sense of relief when he heard about the false positive result.

“It just reinforces my feelings, and I told the team this: Our mentality, my mentality is, No. 1, ‘You don’t want to get this,’ and, No. 2, ‘You don’t want to give it to anybody,’” Stefanski said. “That is why we are so strict about the protocols. That’s why we follow everything to a T. That’s why we act in an abundance of caution, because we’re trying to take care of each other, players, the coaching staff and their families.”

If there’s a silver lining to Sunday’s chaos, it’s that the Browns were able to further prepare for a dreaded COVID-19 outbreak.

“It was a heck of a dry run on a worst-case scenario,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said on Zoom. “I came in early and wasn’t allowed in the building. I was nervous. I wondered if this was it. You start thinking about all the things that could happen if that were the case. I also thought about my in-laws who were visiting for a day at our house and how was I going to affect them if I was possibly, you know, had a positive test, too.

“So when you don’t know they were false [positives], you’re very concerned, very concerned. But at that point, once we figured that everything was going to be OK, I was really proud of the men. They transitioned right back into work mode. ... It was a little bit unsettling early, but I was really proud of the way the day went for our guys. They really showed up and responded well.”

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