Falcons shut down facilities after one new positive COVID-19 test

Falcons QB Matt Ryan congregates with teammates during a brief break in the action Wednesday during training camp practice. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Team expects to return Friday and play Vikings on Sunday

After one new positive COVID-19 test, the Falcons, who have had nine players placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list, shut down their facility Thursday.

The Falcons also were the first team to have a player on the list during the 2020 season before there were outbreaks in Tennessee and New England.

“Out of an abundance of caution following one new positive test, we have made the decision to stop all in-person work at IBM Performance Field Thursday and will conduct all operations virtually,” the team said in a statement. “This decision was made in consultation with the NFL and medical officials. The health and safety of our team is our highest priority.”

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, in consultation with medical experts, determines when a club must follow the Post Exposure COVID procedures. The NFL knew there would be positive tests once the season started.

“If we can employ the appropriate mitigation strategies, we can keep those cases isolated,” Sills said. “As I said the other day, keep it them at the level of having a camp fire and prevent it from turning into a forest fire, which is obviously what we are trying to do here.”

The Falcons expect to return to the building Friday and expect to play their game against the Minnesota Vikings at 1 p.m. Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. The one individual who tested positive was an assistant coach, but not a coordinator, according to someone familiar with the situation.

Dawn Aponte, the NFL’s chief football administrative officer, works with the teams and the medical experts.

“We try to ensure constant and clear communications with the clubs,” Aponte said. "We have had about one-third of the league who have been under these intensive protocols. We continue to learn on a week-to-week, and sometimes now on a day-to-day, basis all of the things that we can do and share with the clubs to help to limit and mitigate risks.”

The Falcons, who are scheduled to travel to Minneapolis on Saturday, are off to a 0-5 start and fired general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn on Sunday. Raheem Morris was introduced as the interim head coach Tuesday.

“Right now, in this new COVID-19 world, there’s a lot of things that come up in that world every single day,” Morris said. “You just have to deal with that all the time.”

A day after their second player was placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list since the start of the season, the Falcons were under a heightened level of protocols Wednesday.

Rookie defensive tackle Marlon Davidson, who has played in three games, was placed on the list Tuesday. Earlier this season, rookie ornerback A.J. Terrell, who was the 16th overall pick in the draft, was placed on the list Sept. 26 and missed two games.

The league and the Falcons are hoping to avoid an outbreak such as the Tennessee Titans had, which caused them not to play a game for 17 days. The original report by ESPN cited “multiple” positive tests led to the Falcons’ shutdown.

“Clearly, we affirmed again the great importance of mask use and also the risk of meetings,” Sills said of the league’s lessons from the Tennessee and New England situations. "Clearly, when folks are meeting in small spaces and particularly if masks are not involved, there is a high risk of transmission. I think mask use, at all times, avoidance of small in-person meetings are very important lessons.

“But I think in the affirmative, we still see no evidence of on-field transmission from football-related activities, which I think is important.”

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons' Ricardo Allen discusses the heightened COVID protocols the team must follow this week.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and safety Ricardo Allen discussed the situation Wednesday, a day before the shut down.

“As much as possible, we have to keep our masks on everywhere that we go,” Allen said. “In the hot tub, it doesn’t matter. Anywhere you are in the vicinity of being around someone else, you have to have a mask on. You have to make sure that you keep your tracker on at all given times.”

The Falcons are not permitted to comment on a player’s medical status other than to refer to roster status. Clubs may not disclose whether a player is in quarantine or tested positive for COVID-19.

Falcons running back Todd Gurley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett were outspoken about player safety before the start of the season. But as training camp went on, both were pleased with the team’s protocols.

“I have visited the Falcons' facility,” Sills said. “I applaud them for the work that they’ve done. I think they have done a terrific job of re-configuring their facility. Of thinking through all of the procedures and protocols or really emphasizing things on a day-to-day basis. They have done a very good job there. The situation of today shouldn’t change that fact.”

The trend of COVID-19 case getting higher around the nation is troublesome to the NFL.

“It’s getting more challenging over these next few weeks because the disease is spiking throughout the country,” Sills said. “So what that means is that our players, coaches and staff are going to be more exposed when they leave the facility, particularly if they have household members or children maybe going to school.

"I think that’s why we have to double-down on our efforts on all sites and every club. No on can sort of relax and think that we have this conquered. But I would say the Falcons have been very proactive. They’ve been very cooperative through this. I’m very confident that their medical leadership is going to help as we deal with this situation.”

The NFL expects the cold-and-flu season to complicate matters moving forward. More players, coaches and staff are expected to be removed from the facility if they have cold or flu symptoms even with a negative test.

“In today’s time and the situation that we are in, we always have to rule out COVID-19 first in those situations,” Sill said. “So when someone reports symptoms, even if they have a negative test that same day, we are going to hold that individual out of the facility.”

“We are also going to contact-trace and see if they have any of those high-risk contacts that I spoke about, and we’re going to pull those folks out of the facility.”

Davidson became the ninth member -- seven in training camp and two in-season -- of the team placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The assistant coach was the 10th person.

Terrell, safety Jamal Carter, fullback Keith Smith, safety Chris Cooper, rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, quarterback Danny Etling and linebacker Foye Oluokun all served stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Etling later was released.

The Titans had the NFL’s first COVID-19 outbreak, with the league shutting down their facility Sept. 29. The outbreak reached a total of 24 players and personnel, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press because neither the NFL nor the Titans commented on all the test results.

The Falcons were one of three teams who did not have a player choose to opt-out of this season because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Chargers and Steelers also didn’t have a player opt-out before the season started. A total of 66 players and free agent Larry Warford elected to opt-out.

Sills was asked at what point would the NFL considering closing down the season.

“Our goal is to move forward and try to live with the virus, to continue to allow our teams to operate as long as it appears safe to do so,” Sills said. "But we’ve also clearly said, we are going to be informed by what our situation is, by what our data is showing us and by the public health data.

“None of these decisions are made in isolation. We have to continue to stay in close contact with public health authorities both at the local and national level and see what the state of the pandemic is.”

The Falcons gave a peek inside their locker room with a video shot Oct. 4.

Here’s a full list of the additional protocols the Falcons must follow:

  • In addition to daily PCR testing, all players and Tier 1 and 2 individuals must receive a daily POC test and test negative before entering the facility and commencing daily activities. This includes PCR and POC tests on game day.
  • All meetings must occur virtually unless held outdoors or in an indoor facility with masks being worn by all.
  • Whenever possible, activities will take place either outdoors or in large, open spaces.
  • PPE/face masks must be worn on the practice fields by players and staff at all times – no exceptions. Oakley face shields affixed to helmets are permitted to be worn during practice and/or walk-throughs.
  • Players may remove helmet/mask for breaks but should be greater than 6 feet distant from each other when unprotected.
  • Gloves should also be worn on field by all players except quarterbacks who may leave the throwing hand uncovered.
  • Players receiving medical treatment or rehabilitation must wear a mask and face shield. Medical providers must wear the same as well as gloves.
  • Rehab that involves cardio work may be done out of doors with player unmasked as long as they are by themselves or supervised by one therapist at an appropriate distance.
  • The weight room will be limited to no more than 10 players at any time regardless of the size of the room. Other personnel in the weight room are limited to five total when players are present. PPE is required.
  • The facility will be deep-cleaned daily.
  • No team or player gatherings or group football activities will be permitted away from the facility.
  • Club ICOs must review close contact information provided by IQVIA with the club general manager and coach on a daily basis.

Falcons' next four games

Falcons at Vikings at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18al trial

Lions at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday Oct. 25

Falcons at Panthers at 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29

Broncos at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8

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