The Indianapolis Colts on Friday briefly joined the growing group of N.F.L. teams dealing with a potential outbreak of coronavirus cases. Except that hours later the team announced that it had been wrong: The “four individuals” who had tested positive for the virus were re-tested and confirmed to be negative.
The confusion mirrored a similar series of events on Oct. 9 involving the Jets, who closed and then quickly reopened their training facility after an initial positive result could not be confirmed. But the confusion also cast new doubt on the reliance on rapid testing to spot, and prevent, virus outbreaks as the league plows ahead with its schedule.
Hours after the Colts said they were closing their practice facility, and shortly before they reopened it, the New England Patriots — who had just emerged from a virus-inflicted week off — also called off their Friday session after recording at least one new positive.
The news of the new Patriots’ new case came a day after two of the team’s most important players, quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, were taken off the team’s reserve/Covid-19 list and returned to practice. Friday’s positive, though, put a new, unnamed player on that list, and the team said it was waiting for the results of a follow-up test of a second player to confirm whether he is also positive.
Newton, who joined the Patriots this season, and Gilmore, the reigning N.F.L. defensive player of the year, are expected to return when the Patriots face the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon. The team said the game, which had been postponed a week after New England’s earlier virus outbreak, would go ahead as planned.
In Indianapolis, the Colts called off practice ahead of their own Sunday game after their latest round of testing produced multiple positives.
“The team is currently in the process of confirming those tests,” the Colts said in a statement. “In the meantime, the practice facility will be closed and the team will work remotely while following N.F.L. protocols.”
Within hours, the team announced that the initial results had been wrong.
“The four positive samples were re-tested and have been confirmed negative,” the team said in an update posted on Twitter. After consulting the league, the Colts said, they had reopened their practice facility “and will continue preparation for Sunday’s game.”
The series of outbreaks has scrambled the N.F.L. schedule, forced the league to strengthen its virus protocols, and raised serious questions about whether the seasons can be completed on time. Several games have been postponed or rescheduled already, each one causing a cascading series of changes in the complicated matrix that is the league’s schedule.
Any complications with Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game, though, could create the most serious scheduling issues yet. When the league postponed the teams’ meeting last weekend, it solved the scheduling problem by allowing both New England and Denver to use the open date as their bye week, and shuffling several games against other opponents later in the season.
But since teams only get one bye per season, that has left the league with no flexibility if it is forced to postpone any more games involving either team. By insisting on its traditional schedule format, even as the virus cases continue to rise in dozens of states, the N.F.L. is left with little choice but to try to play Sunday’s game — provided the Patriots do not confirm any additional cases — or pursue adding an 18th week to the calendar to allow for makeup games.
And in addition to bolstering its virus protocols, the N.F.L. has threatened teams with punishment for breaking them. This week, the league announced even more changes to its protocols, including the requirement that anyone with so-called high-risk exposure to a person who has tested positive must be isolated for at least five days, even if the person tests negative and is asymptomatic.