Health and safety protocols, COVID-19 tests underway as Falcons vets report

Falcons veterans will be streaming in starting Tuesday, but they won’t actually be hitting the field until next week at the earliest.

Tuesday's intake process will mark the first of many COVID-19 tests as the team prepares for the 2020 season. After that first test, players and select staff members will then isolate and get a second one later in the week, according to head team physician, Dr. Kyle Hammond. Both of those must be negative before being able to enter and get physicals done — a typical requirement for the players to get back to football in a normal year.

Falcons rookies came in and started testing last week, with their COVID-19 test results and then preseason physicals complete on Saturday.

For the first two weeks of camp, COVID-19 tests will continue daily.

"We looked at all different ways to test for COVID-19, what was the most sensitive way, what was the most reliable way, what was also a safe and easy way to not place too much burden on the athletes who would potentially get repetitive testing, that would not be too invasive but would still be very accurate," Dr. Hammond told FOX 5 Sports.

After two weeks, if positivity rates fall below 5 percent, the NFL allows teams to decrease testing to every other day.

"You’ve got to think about public health needs as well, and so the understanding and being empathetic about the public health needs of the city or the region that you’re in with your team that you’re in is important," Hammond said. "So once testing became more readily available, easier, quicker, the turnaround time for the results… We became more comfortable."

The NFL has contracted BioReference, a private lab that is also processing NBA and MLS COVID-19 tests, to take charge of thousands of NFL tests in the coming weeks.

"We’re going to test frequently. We’ll continue to monitor our results," Hammond said. "We’ll continue to monitor any changes in the public health data that we see, anything that we get from infectious disease experts at Emory or from the National Football League, if there’s changes in the protocol then they’ll let us know and we will adapt."

There will of course be temperature checks, mandatory masks in the facility, substantial facility cleaning, hand hygiene, spaced-out lockers, and smaller groups working together, perhaps more virtually.

But on top of that, the NFL is having staff and players don a wearable device to make contact tracing easier. Kinexon SafeZone warns the wearer about social distancing by flashing a warning, then sounding an alarm. And it also records data about who comes in contact with who, when, and for how long. The NBA is reportedly using the device for officials and media but not players. Hammond told FOX 5 Sports that the device, worn as a bracelet or lanyard, will help the Falcons contact trace in the event of a positive case.

"We’re looking to, if there is a positive case, what all other individuals are potentially affected by that positive case, and that could be during practice or that could be during meetings or that could be outside of football," Hammond explained. "It could be a family member or it could be during a game."

Hammond said the Falcons medical team is most worried about what happens outside these walls in regards to COVID-19 transmission, so they’re emphasizing education about how players and staff can protect themselves away from work and on their own time. 

Hammond, who is also on the Atlanta Braves' medical staff and the head orthopedic doctor for Hawks, said the NFL has learned lessons from other sports returning to play.

"The NFL in some regard wasn’t — I wouldn’t say lucky, but we had the opportunity to view the successes and kind of methodologies that the other sports leagues were going through as they made plans to return to sports," he said. "MLS and NBA have a bubble scenario in their seasons right now, which is a little different than what we’re going to be able to do with the NFL. That’s just impossible to do that with the NFL, but Major League Baseball is not doing that either, and so far they’re having a pretty good success."