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Omicron infections are surging in the professional sports world

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In this era of COVID-19, sports have reflected the course of the pandemic in a very public way, from league shutdowns in March of 2020, signaling a closing of society at large, to rules and guidance about opening up venues. Now, sports are once again serving as an indicator. Infection rates are surging in major pro leagues, reflecting the rapid rise of cases in the general population. NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now to talk more. Welcome back, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: You said infection rates are rising - in which leagues? What's happening?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, it's a moving target, so numbers are shifting. But we are seeing rapid rises in players entering COVID-19 protocols. That's mean - that means either testing positive or having close contact with someone who tested positive. In the NBA, we've had the first game postponements this week involving two Chicago Bulls games. In the National Hockey League, they've already postponed nine games, and more than a hundred players have been placed in COVID protocol. In the NFL, the Cleveland Browns have been hit especially hard - reportedly 18 players on the COVID list there, including starting quarterback Baker Mayfield. And also, the team's head coach is on the list.

CORNISH: And this is where you say what games they've postponed or canceled.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) So they have not yet postponed any in the NFL, but there continue to be problems. Just today, Seattle put two players on the COVID list, including top wide receiver Tyler Lockett. You know, it's important to note, Audie, many of these players are asymptomatic, and they feel fine because they're young and healthy and, most importantly, vaccinated. But they still could transmit the virus, which is why they're being removed from teams and games during the illness.

CORNISH: You know, the leagues were doing well, keeping COVID cases down. They did have high vaccination rates. So what happened?

GOLDMAN: That's a really good point. You know, you look at those vaccination rates - almost every NHL player vaccinated, the NBA reportedly at 97%. As of yesterday, the NFL said nearly 95% of players were vaccinated. Despite these safeguards, though, there are reasons why athletes may be more vulnerable to getting the virus, especially the highly transmissible omicron variant. That's according to Zach Binney. He's a sports epidemiologist at Emory University. I spoke to him today, and here's what he said.

ZACHARY BINNEY: If you're an athlete and you're playing for a team, you're spending a lot of time together indoors, in meetings. You're in the cafeteria eating together. It's almost as much proximity as anybody working in any office job or restaurant job would have to each other in terms of being indoors and in close contact.

GOLDMAN: And, Audie, Zach Binney says, you add on to that the fact that, until very recently, many of these athletes, especially the vaccinated ones, were not required to wear masks indoors in most circumstances. And you've got a ripe opportunity for transmission.

CORNISH: We've been hearing from medical experts who are saying that the general population needs booster shots, that that's the best protection against omicron. Is that being echoed in sports?

GOLDMAN: It is. League officials are really stressing boosters, which, at this point, lag behind the vaccination rates. The NBA, for instance, says more than 60% of players are - eligible for boosters have gotten them. Beyond boosters, just this afternoon, the NFL announced changes to its COVID-19 rules, tightening them up considerably. Effective immediately, masking regardless of vaccination status, meetings will be remote or outdoors, no in-person meals and no outside visitors on team travel. Zach Binney told me, hopefully, these kinds of enhanced protocols, along with more booster shots, can keep the NFL and other leagues operating during this current surge.

CORNISH: That's NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.