How the Seattle Seahawks Stayed Covid-Free


“Mayfield turns the corner, and got the first down. And the ball game is over. And the Cleveland Browns have made it into the N.F.L. playoffs for the first time in 18 long years.” Finally, after the longest drought in the N.F.L., the Cleveland Browns are barreling toward the playoffs. “Browns fans can’t get enough.” “Victory formation!” “Playoff-bound, baby!” Singing: “Here we go, Brownies, here we go.” “To be a part of that was so euphoric, and then I just, like, hugged my wife. And it was just like, man, we did it. We made it. We’re part of this.” “Yeah!” No other Browns player had waited longer than star lineman Joel Bitonio. “I’ve been here for seven years. We haven’t had a winning season since I’ve been here. You don’t realize how nice it is to win unless you’ve been at the bottom, and I had been at the bottom.” But another hurdle was right around the corner. Just days before the huge faceoff against their heavily favored division rival, the Browns get bad news. Five new cases of Covid — three coaches, including their head coach, and two key players, including Bitonio. “My first opportunity to play in the playoffs, then you get this phone call and it’s like, you’re out for 10 days. You’re not going to be able to play in the playoff game. And you’re just like, man, you know, how many other guys later in the week are going to test positive? Like, who are we going to be able to play with out on the field?” It looked like coronavirus would doom the Browns’ playoff dreams. But the N.F.L. had already learned some hard lessons about how to control outbreaks since the beginning of the season, a season that back in July, many thought would never happen. “The number of deaths in Western Washington resulting from coronavirus is rising for the first time since March.” “County leaders say the numbers are still going up. Applying to move into the next reopening phase right now, just not realistic.” At the Seattle Seahawks training facility, it’s day one of training camp. The official kickoff of the football season, which is slated to be played without the protective bubble some pro sports are using. It unleashed a litany of safety concerns from medical experts … “The N.F.L. should pause, take a second to think about the players, place them at a premium, and really delay the sport or cancel it for the year.” … and some of the N.F.L.’s biggest stars. “Given the state of the virus, how comfortable are you coming back to training camp?” “I’m very, very nervous, I can tell you that. I’m more nervous than excited, so we just got to play it by ear.” Tyler Lockett, who’s known for his acrobatic catches and a kinetic connection with quarterback Russell Wilson, says coronavirus hit him very close to home. “My cousin, she ended up getting Covid. It flared up a lot to where she was scared. She didn’t even know if she was going to make it.” And another worry about Covid for Lockett is how it could affect his heart. He was born with an irregularity. “My aorta’s on the other side. I just wanted to make sure that that was something that wasn’t going to affect me as I went into football. Ultimately, what came down to my decision was, I said, OK, Pete Carroll’s an older guy. If he can do it, then I can do it.” At almost 70, Pete Carroll is not your typical senior citizen. “Can you win the game in the second quarter?” “No!” “Can you win the game in the third quarter?” “No!” “Can you win the game in the fourth quarter?” “Yeah!” But he’s the oldest head coach in the N.F.L., and he saw up close when coronavirus first erupted in the U.S. at a nursing home a few miles away in Kirkland, Wash. “Life Care Center of Kirkland is losing more patients. Tonight, 22 patients have died, 26 others have tested positive.” “We had numbers coming out of this every day. You knew people that were sick, and people that were passing. It was just so close to home that, you know, it hit me that we were going to have to figure something out here. I mean, try to figure out how we were going to live in this world, whether football’s going to happen, the N.F.L. was going to stay up running or we weren’t, and what the directions would be if we didn’t land it.” He wasn’t sure a football season could be safe. “The dilemmas to me were that, you know, with all of this distancing and all this taking care of business and stay away from each other and all, wearing masks and all that — but we want to play football.” “Them breathing on each other and facing each other in the trenches, you’re like, how are they going to be able to survive that?” Sam Ramsden is normally the director of player health and performance for the Seahawks. “Sam! Sam!” But this year, he served as the team’s infection control officer. “I’m the person that you can come to with any questions.” “You were flying into something that was completely unknown. Obviously, it scared plenty of players.” Players like Tyler Lockett, who’s on his way to get his first Covid test. “I don’t want to do it.” “You got to.” This is the beginning of a grand experiment, to play a not-at-all socially distant sport in the middle of a pandemic. Instead of a bubble, the N.F.L. tested and tracked over 6,000 players, coaches and staff every day, an operation that paved the way for 256 games, a giant trove of Covid data, and for fans watching at home, barely a hint of the radical changes going on behind the scenes. “In most N.F.L. seasons, it’s about the Chiefs versus the Raiders or the Packers versus the Bears. This N.F.L. season was very much about the N.F.L. versus this virus.” Dr. Allen Sills is in charge of the league’s pandemic plan, a playbook which relies on scientific tools that had never been tested on this kind of scale, says epidemiologist and N.F.L. adviser Christina Mack. “The way that the protocols were written had some very unique elements. One of them is that we tested everyone in the ecosystem every day, and that was done across five different platforms over the season. And so we were really able to see the nuances and sensitivities of those diagnostic tools, which were quite new.” Doing over a million Covid tests enabled the N.F.L. to see one testing platform was able to detect cases as much as one to two days earlier than the rest. They also collected data on everyone’s interactions with wearable tracking devices called Kinexons. “All of the players and the staff were wearing Kinexon devices when they were in the facility, when they traveled and during the game. And so we had very granular information of how many individuals and who was each person near, within six feet and for how long.” The constant testing and tracking were critical, but the Seahawks say the toughest part was instilling the mentality to keep it all up — the distancing, the masks, the never-ending takeout. “You’re constantly asking people to do something they’re not sure they want to do. They’re here to play football, and they’re not really trying to worry about wearing a chip or wearing a mask. Some people thought it was the worst thing that ever happened. They were scared to death. Some people said, no way, it’s a bunch of BS and it’s nothing. I realized that we were going to have to create our own bubble of conscience that was going to keep us in line. Everything that one person did, everybody did, if we were together and connected. We needed to recognize the people that might not be on board and meet them where they were, and try to bring them along with us and get a real team effort going.” “It was difficult to keep your mask on. They got on a lot of our nerves because wearing masks all the time kind of affects your breathing at times. You get shortness of breath, you start thinking if you got little things in your throat, you start thinking something’s going on. Some days, you got adjusted to it. Some days, it became easier. But other days, it was just mentally stressful, and it impacted us a lot.” “It was constant. It was 24/7 forever, you know, and so we had to help our guys stay in the mentality of it. The whole building was restructured, and there was signals and messages everywhere. And we were trying to figure out what was the best way to do things.” The best way, the only way, he says, was still often virtual. “Trying to see all y’all on one screen, though. Let’s see.” “The head.” It was a big adjustment at first, but Carroll says it also forced them to get creative. “We have a guy that comes to us from the University of Miami. I want to welcome in Greg Olsen.” [laughter] “Coach, thanks so much. So excited to be here.” “Yes.” “We learned — we had to develop our habits, we had to develop our style, the way we entertain our players, with the interactions, with the competitions, all of the things we did to make it thrive.” “Does this look like the body of a 36 year old?” “You might want to work on that core a little bit before you get here.” “Oh no, the core is fine, the core is fine.” “I love it. It was our job to be the conscience for everybody. Human nature wants to take the easy way out. We cannot fall prey to it. We have got to battle through it. We had to take responsibility for it, too, and feel like if we failed, it was our fault. We needed that pressure on us and that stress to make sure that we toed the line.” But there were failures, and even Carroll had lapses. His mask mishaps on prime-time television led to $350,000 in fines. “I was so pissed at myself that that was the — you know, I — my discipline was not better because I know. I mean, this had happened. But the fact that it did, OK, it allowed me to say, yeah, you can screw it up. Even when you care so much and it’s so important, you can still, you know, [expletive] err.” “And it’s very hard to win games in the National Football League. And on top of that, you’re trying to beat a pandemic.” “For the third time, Tyler Lockett! Touchdown Seahawks!” The Seahawks were winning games … “My advice to their defense is you might want to cover Tyler Lockett.” … and keeping the virus at bay. “Touchdown, Nick Jones.” For the first few weeks of the season, teams across the league were seeing few cases. It seemed like the system was working. But the calm was abruptly shattered in Week 4 by the Tennessee Titans, with eight positive tests. “Every morning we get the alerts of those positive tests. When the data started to come in, it was very evident very quickly that we had a significant problem on our hands that was different than what we had seen before.” Eight cases quickly grew to over 20. To understand if it was an outbreak spreading among the team or a cluster of cases picked up from the community, the N.F.L. sent the virus samples to a lab at Yale University, where they do a cutting-edge technique called genomic sequencing. “The easiest way to understand genomic sequencing is that each virus does have a fingerprint. We look at the infection for each person, and what is the fingerprint of that virus that’s infecting them. So that we can begin to understand, did someone acquire this virus out in the community when they went to the grocery store or did they acquire this virus because they were together in a room with someone at an N.F.L. facility?” The genomic data showed some samples with identical fingerprints, confirming Titans had infected each other. But the broader lesson, the N.F.L. says, was about C.D.C. guidelines. “It was not the six feet and the 15 minutes that mattered — it was the context. We saw transmission in what was likely less than seven minutes, in some cases.” The Titans outbreak was a watershed moment for the N.F.L., and led to a stricter playbook — fewer people in the weight rooms, more virtual meetings and anyone with high-risk contact needed to be quarantined for five days, which meant more teams were taking the field without key players. “It was never about who had a quarterback or who didn’t or wide receivers or who had a coach. It was strictly based around, what was the ongoing risk of infection, and were we confident that we understood transmission well enough to feel like we were putting uninfected players, coaches and staff on the field?” As the season rolled on, cases in the U.S. climbed, and the N.F.L. saw more and more positive tests. Each case unleashed new stress for the players. “I knew that the Seahawks would do everything in their power to make sure that we had a safe environment. I was more so concerned about the other teams, and how that was going to be when we played them. Could we get it in the middle of a game?” “Nice job, bro.” “There was times I slapped people’s hands after the game or I talked to people at halftime from the other team, and then it come out four or five days later and they got it. So there’s been a lot of scares.” But Dr. Sills says the N.F.L. saw no evidence Covid crossed the line of scrimmage. “From all the genomic data as well as all the test data, we never had a single documented case of on-field transmission, and we clearly did have games where players were infected and were on the field.” “I think it’s a combination of first detectable day of their infection, the players are rarely together for more than, say, two minutes at a time during a game, in a well-ventilated area.” “Somehow, being outdoors was — made that big of a difference. It seems so crazy that you could breathe right in somebody’s face and it would be OK here, but not in the building. You know, it didn’t make sense to me. I know it’s just my own limitations. I didn’t know. But outdoors changed everything.” For the Browns, all the hard lessons the league had learned about playing football during Covid helped control the contagion. The outbreak in their locker room subsided. And despite missing so many coaches, players and so much practice, Cleveland pulled off a huge upset victory. It meant that Joel Bitonio was going to the playoffs. “Brings that second reflection. We were like, this is pretty cool. Like, I’m running out there as an N.F.L. player and I get to be a part of this, and we’re playing against the world champs. I’m here, I passed everything, I feel healthy. Like, now it’s just time to play football.” The Seahawks, however, suffered a crushing defeat to the Rams in the first round of the playoffs, dashing their hopes for the Super Bowl. But by some accounts, they scored an even bigger win — the only team to make it through the whole season without a single positive case. Carroll said it was not time to take a victory lap. “It’s just plain diligence, every frickin’ day.” The bigger lesson, though, he says, applies equally to civilians. Covid is a grind. Even for those in the most well-funded, high-tech bubble of the N.F.L., it takes a team. “That’s the biggest thing that I think we all took away. Football is great, football is fun, but we’re able to go out there and be as great as we can be because I know this person beside me has my back. And that’s what I think allowed us to be the type of team that we were this year, and that allowed us to go over and beyond with all these Covid measures.” “When we were saying goodbye, I was frightened. Because they’re going into their own worlds and their own environments, and no longer could they be controllable. And how deep were the lessons that — were they able to have that conscience that would help have them help their families help them, and their families, friends in the midst? It’s just so darn deep.”


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