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2021 NFL COVID-19 protocols, rules: Differences between vaccinated, unvaccinated players

A look at the NFL’s regular season policy for COVID-19 and the difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated players.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions - NFL Football Game Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Over the weekend, Dallas Cowboys offensive guard Zack Martin tested positive for COVID-19, making him likely the first NFL player to miss a 2021 game due to the virus. While Martin is vaccinated and there remains a chance he could be taken off the reserve/COVID-19 list by Thursday’s season opener, head coach Mike McCarthy believes he’ll miss the game.

Martin will likely not be the only player to miss a game due to COVID, so before the season begins, let’s revisit the new protocols the NFL has set for the 2021 season. Specifically, the NFL has adopted very different protocols for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated players when it comes to receiving a positive test or coming into close contact with a COVID-positive person.

Here’s a handy breakdown of what will happen if/when a team is dealing with a possible COVID situation with one of their players. For simplicity’s sake, we won’t get into protocols on travel, mask-wearing, etc. This is simply a guide to follow in case a player is placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list or faces a situation in which they may have contracted the virus.

Vaccinated players

If a vaccinated player tests positive for COVID-19

That player must isolate immediately but is eligible to rejoin the team if he remains symptom free AND has two negative tests 24 hours apart. In other words, they could theoretically rejoin the team as soon as 48 hours after testing positive.

However, if experiencing symptoms, the player must remain in isolation until he returns two negative tests AND is asymptomatic for 48 hours.

If a vaccinated player has a close contact with a COVID-19 positive person

That player will be tested for COVID-19, but will not be forced to isolate, as long as their test comes back negative and they are not displaying any symptoms. This is the case even if the contact is considered “high risk.” For the next five days, though, they will have to test daily and wear a mask at the facility.

Unvaccinated players

If an unvaccinated player tests positive for COVID-19

That player must isolate for 10 days minimum, even if asymptomatic. If experiencing symptoms, the player must isolate for at least 10 days and cannot return until:

1. At least 10 days have passed since the date symptoms of COVID-19 were first reported to Club medical staff; and

2. At least 24 hours have passed since last fever without the use of fever reducing medications; and

3. Other symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath) have improved; and

4. Return approved by the Club physician, after consultation with ICS and notification of NFL Chief Medical Officer; and

5. Local regulations and requirements are satisfied.

6. For symptomatic infections that are categorized as mild, prior to team training and game play, player must complete a minimum 3- day progressive exercise protocol under team medical staff supervision with appropriate clinical monitoring before returning to full participation. For moderate to severe infections (hospitalized), it is recommended that prior to team training and game play, the player complete a progressive exercise protocol for a minimum of 7 days or equal to twice the duration of the hospitalization.

If an unvaccinated player has “high risk” close contact with a COVID-positive individual

That player must isolate for five days, even if their initial test is negative. They are tested every day. If each test for the five days comes back negative, they are then permitted to return to the facility.