What happens if Chiefs, Buccaneers get COVID-19? Breaking down NFL protocols for Super Bowl 55

Jori Epstein
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Travis Kelce’s voice trailed off.

“It would be ... I don’t even want to think about it,” the Kansas City Chiefs tight end said Monday afternoon. “I hope nobody gets COVID and everyone passes all of their tests so that nobody misses this moment, man.

“Because I can only imagine how upset I would be if I missed the Super Bowl because of COVID.”

A mere 10 minutes later, news broke that two Chiefs players had landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

The news doesn’t automatically mean the players, center Daniel Kilgore and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, will miss the Super Bowl. NFL protocol dictates that players who were in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate. If they test negative each day of a five-day isolation period, they may rejoin the team.

Kilgore and Robinson’s placement on the list Monday — Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he was notified of their exposure Sunday — came early enough they could return before the Chiefs face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl 55.

Nonetheless, the exposure is arguably a setback for the NFL and NFL Players Association, who touted their clean bill of health leading up to conference championships as validation their protocols need not meaningfully change for a maximally competitive Super Bowl.

The Chiefs' exposure, even if it sows more doubt than despair, represents a sobering reality.

“The problem is you’re fighting the invisible man,” Reid said. “It gets you when you least expect it and we’re seeing that everywhere.

“You’re fighting germs. And they’re hard to see.”

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The protocol

From August 1 to January 23, 262 NFL players and 462 personnel members tested positive for COVID-19.

The positives — which arrived amid 954,830 total test results — led the NFL to tweak its protocol over the course of the season, regarding both confirmed positive cases and precautionary measures the league would come to mandate at each team facility.

By late November, all 32 NFL teams were in what the league called its intensive COVID protocol. This included daily COVID-19 PCR test in BioReference Laboratories trailers parked at team facilities; Mesa point-of-care tests as a confirmatory resource when positive tests emerged; and more widely available testing for friends and family living with or coming in contact with players.

Meetings turned virtual, increased physical distancing was mandated at team facilities, and travel policy began to require not only masks, but specifically N95 or KN95 masks. Add in EPA-grade disinfectants, and COVID-19 testing of service providers (think: masseuses, chiropractors, barbers), and Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones believed the protection was strong.

“As long as you’re following the rules as best as you can, I think there’s a low possibility of you contracting the virus,” Jones said Monday. “Just follow the rules.”

Testing leading up to the conference championships further encouraged this belief.

During the week preceding the games, 313 players and 531 team personnel from the Bills, Chiefs, Buccaneers and Packers underwent daily testing. The players’ 2,126 tests revealed no positive results. Of 3,152 samples from team personnel, two were deemed confirmed positives. The NFL and NFL Players Association’s conclusion: They would change “virtually nothing” from their COVID-19 prevention protocol nor their guidelines mandating game scheduling hinges on science rather than attempts at competitive equality.

Technically, if Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady tests positive for COVID-19 this week, league policy does not dictate rescheduling a game. Only scientific, medical concerns of further spread are a sure bet to give the league pause about Sunday’s time slot, per protocol.

“We’ve seen teams go through tough times in games,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said, citing the Cleveland Browns’ playoff game without coach Kevin Stefanski and the Denver Broncos’ Nov. 30 loss to the New Orleans Saints, in which Denver’s entire quarterback room was ruled ineligible. “We’re counting days until that (last) game kicks off. Proud of our players, thrilled we’re here.

“But we still got to get there.”

‘Just wouldn’t feel right’

Players, for now, are aiming to tighten up their inner circles until the Super Bowl is complete. Some have restricted their interactions, and thus risk factors, all season. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and fiancée Brittany closed their home to all but Mahomes’ brother and assistant, Mahomes said. Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and wife Jordanna pulled their 8- , 7- and 5-year-old children from the local elementary in favor of home schooling to reduce the chance they expose themselves or the team.

“It’s been a lot of sacrifice behind the scenes,” Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis said. “As far as what our families have to go through not being able to live a regular life. … The whole world is (going through) it, not just us. So as long as we don’t hang our hats on the negativity and we try to stay positive, we’ll be good.”

Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, one of Kansas City’s unquestioned defensive leaders, strikes a similar tone to Davis. Mathieu said he aims to lead by example, adhering to protocols rather than chastising teammates who are more laissez-faire. Players don’t have the luxury to “get comfortable,” Mathieu said.

“Obviously, I don’t think anyone wants people watching them or telling them what to do,” Mathieu said. “So I think the best way to show guys is to just lead by example, to always wear my mask, to always be conscious.

“Show guys it’s their responsibility as well to take care of themselves and take care of others.”

Even for exposed players like Robinson and Kilgore, the team was optimistic Monday. Reid said the two players will “work through it” and “it’ll all work out for them,” insisting their behaviors had been safe amid a dynamic risk. Kelce, emotional before the news about how he’d feel missing a Super Bowl due to COVID, expressed those sentiments again when asked about his teammates who were isolating after exposure to the virus.

“As I said earlier, I don’t even want to imagine what it would have to be to miss the Super Bowl because of COVID,” Kelce said. “Hopefully my guys can get back on the field.

“Just wouldn’t feel right without those guys.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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