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Niners' COVID-19 ordeal is latest reminder NFL teams have to be comfortable operating with uncertainty

Liz Roscher
·4-min read

The San Francisco 49ers will be playing hurt against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night. They’ve got starters out due to in-game injuries, but they also have a number of vital players on the reserve/COVID-19 list due to a positive test or exposure to someone who tested positive.

The Niners-Packers game is going on as scheduled despite the absence of San Francisco wide receivers Kendrick Bourne, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk, who were all placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday, but a new wrinkle on Thursday afternoon presented some difficult questions. If a player’s test is a false positive, why should they have to miss a game on the reserve/COVID-19 list? Is there any way at all to remove the uncertainty from this situation?

No definite answers

Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area reported on Thursday that Bourne’s Wednesday test came back negative, the day after he tested positive and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Maiocco says that Bourne’s negative test means that his previous positive may have been a false positive. If it was, he’d essentially be missing Thursday night’s game for nothing since he doesn’t actually have the coronavirus. Since Aiyuk and Samuel are on the list because of their close contact with Bourne, they’d also be missing it for nothing if he doesn’t have it. With how banged up the Niners are, knowing they missed the game when they didn’t have to would definitely sting.

There is one problem, though. You can’t know if a test is a false positive without further days of testing. ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out that false positives have been pretty rare in the NFL, and that false negatives are actually far more common.

The only way to be certain of a false positive or negative is for more testing to be done in the subsequent days, so no one will know whether Bourne actually has COVID-19 for at least another day or two. The Niners will have to play on Thursday night without Bourne, not knowing whether his first test was a false positive or his second test was a false negative.

That uncertainty is tough to swallow when your team is hunting for wins and desperately needs every healthy player to be on the field. But they have to swallow it, because it’s the only way the NFL can possibly continue operating during a pandemic.

No one will know for days whether 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne has COVID-19, and everyone has to be OK with not knowing as his health takes priority. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
No one will know for days whether 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne has COVID-19, and everyone has to be OK with not knowing as his health takes priority. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

No other options for 49ers vs. Packers

In the end, whether the results of Bourne’s tests were a false positive or a false negative is irrelevant. He tested positive so he has to go on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Aiyuk and Samuel are considered close contacts, so they also have to go on the list. They’ll all miss Thursday night’s game because they must have five straight days of negative tests in order to be activated from the list.

Those are the rules. That’s the way it is. Everyone agreed to the protocols, so they must operate within them. It’s not about fairness, it’s about protecting the health and safety of players, coaches, and staff members. But since every single NFL team has to follow the same rules, it also happens to be incredibly fair.

The United States reported over 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. If Bourne’s test turns out to be a false positive, he didn’t miss Thursday night’s game for nothing. He missed it because no one can be sure if it’s false without additional days of testing. Him not being there means that no matter what, there’s no chance he can spread COVID-19 to anyone else.

That’s the only certainty in the NFL right now when it comes to COVID-19, that the safest thing is for a player to isolate if there’s even the smallest chance they have the coronavirus. Regardless of the false positives or false negatives or their depleted offensive line or receiver corps, every team has to deal with that.

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