Where might the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak have started and could it have been avoided?

By John Glennon

The NFL’s guide to COVID-19 protocol is literally 74 pages long, filled with the detailed rules and regulations one might expect from a professional sports league trying to bar the door on a pandemic.

The implication behind such attention to detail, of course, is that one tiny slip-up can ruin the strong work put in by thousands of others.

In that respect, it’s hard to believe a 32-team league team featuring 53-man rosters and 16-player practice squads, along with a host of coaches, front-office personnel and other staff members, has suffered only one significant COVID-19 outbreak to date.

But the bottom line is that it’s only happened to one team, the Titans, who’ve reported that since Sept. 24, six players and seven staff members have tested positive for the virus.

So it’s impossible not to at least wonder why it occurred with this franchise, as opposed to with any other.

Let’s take a look at two popular – but obviously unproven – theories as to how the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak started and spread.

The first involves the Titans’ signing of cornerback Greg Mabin to the team’s practice squad. Tennessee signed him Sept. 24, as the Titans were dealing with injuries to starting cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler. Just three days later, however, Mabin tested positive and was placed on the team’s COVID-19 list.

Could the damage have started there?

It’s possible, considering Shane Bowen, the Titans’ defensive play-caller, tested positive that Saturday – just two days after Mabil was placed on the COVID-19 list. But if you’re starting to wonder why a team might have allowed an outsider, a practice-squad free agent, access to Titans coaches and players before knowing his condition, don’t bother going down that road.

The NFL requirements for signing a “street” free agent such as Mabin mean he must return two negative COVID-19 tests (each taken at least 24 hours apart) and then return another negative COVID-19 test (taken 24 hours after the second in the previous set) before the player even enters the facility for a tryout or for in-person team activities.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel said Thursday the team followed protocol, which means Mabin tested negative before he came into contact with other players and coaches. The issue, however, is that COVID-19’s incubation period is thought to last from three to 14 days and – more importantly – an infected person may be contagious 48 to 72 hours before starting to experience symptoms. So despite the Titans’ efforts, it’s not out of the question Mabin inadvertently spread the virus to others before the team could shut it down.

“When (Mabin) tested positive, he was removed from the building and quarantined,” Vrabel said. “Those individuals with close contact with him were also re-tested and went through their protocol as well of being a close contact.”

Then there’s the Bowen situation, as he tested positive Saturday morning, prior to the team’s departure to Minnesota. The Titans made the correct decision to leave Bowen in Nashville.

But the question has to be raised: Did the Titans make the right call to continue moving forward as a team, considering the next few days would include plane rides, bus rides, team meetings and obviously the game itself – which could provide opportunity for COVID-19 to spread?

Here’s where at least one section of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocol may have come into play.

It states that if a player, coach or personnel member is identified as a close contact to a symptomatic individual on the day before or on game day, the individual will be tested as soon as possible, even if asymptomatic. If the individual remains asymptomatic, he/she will be permitted to travel, subject to increased testing in days moving forward.

How, one might ask, could the team determine whether someone had come into “close contact” with Bowen?

First of all, the NFL uses the Center for Disease Control definition of “close contact” – which is being within six feet of someone for at least 15 consecutive minutes, or being in direct contact with secretions from a sick person with COVID-19 (such as being coughed on). The close contact definition does not include brief interactions, such as walking past someone.

The Titans could presumably have tested those in close contact with Bowen, based on the fact all players and staff wear SafeZone devices – which track a person’s contacts throughout the day, identifying who they’re around and for how long.

“We continue to follow the protocol from the NFL that was set forth and continues to change and adapt and adjust,” Vrabel said. “So whatever the NFL tells us that we’re required to do and supposed to do as positive tests come in, that’s what we’ll do. I’m very confident in the way we handled the situation as it relates to the protocol.”

Still, we can’t rule out the fact Bowen had inadvertently passed COVID-19 on to some of the players because – again – the virus doesn’t show itself as soon as someone contracts it.

Trying to figure out how the virus spread based on those who’ve come down with it doesn’t offer rock-solid evidence either. Sure, three of the COVID-19 positives – four including Mabin – are on the defensive side of the ball, which would come under Bowen’s influence. Mabin and rookie cornerback Kristian Fulton would also have spent some time together since they play the same position. But the other two defenders – defensive lineman DaQuan Jones and linebacker Kamalei Correa – spend much more practice and meeting time with their respective groups than with the cornerbacks.

And how would the spread have reached practice-squad tight end Tommy Hudson or long-snapper Beau Brinkley, unless the two were perhaps in too-close contact on a team plane or bus with COVID-19 carriers?

The number one concern all of us have to keep in mind going forward is the health of those in the organization who’ve tested positive and the health of those close to them.

But Titans fans can be excused for wondering about answers to other questions – like where it all began, and how long it will impact the team, considering the continuing trickle of positive tests and the length of time it takes for players and coaches to return from the COVID-19 list.

“How it affects the team is I think psychologically,” Vrabel said. “We’re always going to be as prepared as we can possibly be to get the player or coach in there that is next in line, whether that be with an injury or a virus that would have them miss time.

“I don’t think I can answer that anymore than we will find out where we go with the testing and the results, and how they play out in the next few days to see who’s available and see where we’re at as a team.”

In the end, the Titans can only be thankful the NFL has chosen to re-schedule Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, which just happens to give the team’s injured players – like A.J. Brown, Taylor Lewan, Adoree Jackson, Chris Jackson – added recovery time.

Translation: The Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak may indirectly result in a healthier team. Welcome to 2020.

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