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League, NHLPA Beef Up COVID Rules as Case Clusters Continue

The NHL and NHLPA have put in place new COVID measures in the hopes of slowing the spread of the disease.

The National Hockey League Players Association and the National Hockey League announced new steps to detect and track the spread of the COVID-19 virus among its players on Thursday. The news comes on the heels of several clusters of positive cases erupting across the league in the last few weeks. They will be in place until at least February 28.

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New measures include a pilot project utilizing a system announced last year that places tracking sensors in the shoulder pads of all players to determine which players to single out for enhanced monitoring as a result of close contact with infected players from their own team or their opponent.

Players will also now be strongly advised to wear masks at all times when they are together.

The NHL and NHLPA have not ruled out further steps as the season progresses. 

Heavily Recommend Guidelines for Teams

Also included are a set of heavily suggested rules that include: 

  • Urging players and their families to take new precautions by limiting their activities outside the home 
  • New rapid daily testing protocols
  • Use of KN95 masks
  • Reinforcement training for players on how to prevent the spread of the virus
  • Removing the glass from behind the penalty box to increase circulation
  • Reduced interactions at team meetings and;
  • Limiting social interactions between players 

The NHL has asked teams to provide education and regular testing to members of their players’ household in order to measure and identify potential sources of player infection before transmission can occur. 

Tracing the Spread of Specific Strains Between Teams

Genomic sequencing will be introduced on a case-by-case basis as a response to what appears to be transmission of the virus between teams during game play. Knowing the genetic makeup of a strain can help to prove it has in fact been transferred form one team to another.

The release said positive medical teams will test samples with “whole genomic sequencing to determine specific strain types and to estimate pathways of transmission between players…” and other members of the entourage that travels with the team.

Buffalo Sabres General Manager Kevyn Hayes. The Sabres were put on pause in early February because of COVID-19

“These strategies have been tested and validated in medical settings and all measures have been endorsed by the NHL and NHLPA’s medical advisors.”

Using Previously Positive Players as a Buffer

In a move based on what it calls “emerging evidence” that players who have tested positive for COVID-19 before and have since returned to play have some immunity to the virus for at least 90 days, the league and the players association have asked teams to reconfigure dressing room seating arrangements to use previously positive players as buffers between teammates and staff who have not yet been exposed to the virus. 

“For example, a player who tested positive less than 90 days [ago] should be seated next to a player who has never had COVID-19, or who has recovered,” the NHL said. 

The league is recommending that this measure should be applied not only to players, but also to coaches and other staff as well. 

Using Player Tracking to Trace the Virus Between Teams

A pilot project using data from the Player Tracking System announced last year, will measure the “manner and degree” of interaction between players as an enhancement of the leagues’ current contact tracing efforts.

“The goal of this project is to more precisely determine which people should be considered for enhanced monitoring and/or quarantine based on close contact with potentially infected players.”

Daily Rapid Tests

In addition to the lab-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) the league is in the process of providing each United States-based team with point of care (POC) rapid tests that will be administered on game days to all players, coaches, on-ice officials and club personnel.

These rapid tests were expected to begin taking place across the league as of Thursday. 

The POC tests have a slightly lower ability to detect the presence of COVID-19, the league says. But, they will provide same-day results that will reduce the chance of team-to-team transmission by being able to reduce participation by players who return a positive test.

The league is working with the seven Canadian teams on the availability of similar testing capabilities. 

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Players Told to Stay Home

The NHL and NHLPA are now requiring all players, coaches, training staff, equipment staff and other members of the team’s travelling party to stay at home and not leave except to attend practices and games, to exercise outdoors individually, to perform essential activities or to deal with family emergencies and “other extraordinary circumstances.”

The league noted that many players are already taking this approach, but by taking the additional step and making it a requirement, the NHL says it hopes to reduce the spread of the virus from its members to the general public.

“It is being strongly recommended that household members (spouses, partners) limit their discretionary activities outside of the home,” the NHL said. “Food and grocery delivery services are recommended to eliminate the need to shop in person…

“We understand that not all public social interactions can be avoided, such as children attending school. Other discretionary activities by household members, such as social engagements however, are to be limited as much as possible.”

Masks at All Times

The NHL and NHLPA are strongly urging teams to source out and provide their players and staff with KN95 face masks and will require that they wear them at all times when not exercising, including while in the locker room.

“The fact that masks cannot be worn on by players on the bench, does not mean that they should not be worn in the dressing room,” the league said. “The goal of masking is to reduce total exposure..additional time [wearing] face coverings can… help reduce rise of disease (sic) transmission.”

Before, players were unmasked together pre-game, between periods and post-game in some cases. 

“Players have been instructed that the use of face masks in the dressing room is… important.”

Testing Players’ Household Members and Reducing Interactions

The league and the players association has asked teams to make testing available to members of players’ households in order to detect potential sources of COVID-19 and have taken steps to reduce interactions between players outside of playing the game. 

All team meetings will now be required to be conducted virtually, including all coaching meetings and video review sessions. 

“Many clubs have already transitioned to this model as a matter of standard operating procedure,” the release said. “Given the importance of this intervention, exceptions will not be grated barring extenuating circumstances.”

They are also asking players not to spend time together unless they are distanced and masked. All player lounges in team hotels are required to be closed no later than midnight.

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