PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - As Arizonans prepare for the big game this weekend, the NFL has released data on how the league tracked and mitigated COVID-19 infections during the season. The study published by the CDC redefined what's considered a high-risk contact and has broader implications for public health.

"Keep in mind that, even if one player on a team gets infected, that's money to these teams," says Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director for ASU's Biodesign Institute and part of the university's COVID-19 modeling team.

LaBaer says the findings revealed how easily the virus can be transmitted. The NFL used tracking devices to find out how athletes and staff were getting infected. The devices helped monitor how much contact people had with each other and how close that contact was.

Cardinals Cowboys Football

Arizona Cardinals Offensive Assistant Don Shumpert wears an Kinexon health tracker device before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. Arizona won 38-10. 

"They were watching closely for exposures over 15 minutes to other individuals," says LaBaer. "Despite that, they found a number of infections in people who had even less than 15 minutes exposure under 6 feet."

The data led to a revised definition of high-risk contact to include evaluations of mask use and ventilation in addition to using duration and proximity to determine risk.

The COVID-19 strategy involved hundreds and thousands of COVID-19 tests and some trial and error. The NFL made adjustments to reduce viral spread by imposing intensive protocol with meetings and meals done outdoors, requiring masks during practice, and restricting access to facilities like the locker room and weight room.

The measures, according to the CDC report, cut down close contacts by 60%. From Oct. 15 to Nov. 21, officials identified 20 people as high-risk contacts. Those individuals later tested positive for the virus.

Dr. Andrew Badley, an infectious disease specialist and head of Mayo Clinic's COVID-19 Research Task Force, says the study shows contact tracing can work. Badley participated in a discussion Thursday moderated by Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

49ers Football outside State Farm Stadium

The San Francisco 49ers NFL football team defensive unit runs drills during practice in front of State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Glendale.

"We know from other viral infections that when we diagnose people early and treat them early, they spread less," says Bradley. "The same is very much likely the case with COVID, so we need to redouble our efforts to identify people, diagnose, and treat them early."

Badley says the study shows the importance of maintaining public health measures and suggests the NFL model would be difficult to scale for application in other settings and communities.

 

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