More vaccinated NFL players have tested positive for COVID-19 than unvaccinated players, but that's only because there are far more of them.
The league's top doctor said, if you read the data correctly, vaccinated NFL players are actually less likely to test positive.
When they do get sick, they recover faster than their unvaccinated peers, he said.
Dr. Allen Sills, the chief medical officer for the National Football League, is used to answering a lot of questions about just how well the COVID-19 vaccines really do their job.
"People say 'gosh, maybe these vaccines don't work' because you're seeing all these vaccinated people that are testing positive," Sills said during the 2021 STAT Summit.
But he says that's not the right way to interpret the data.
"We just have so many more people that are vaccinated," Sills explained. (Roughly 94% of NFL players are vaccinated, and 100% of the coaching staff is too.)
The vaccines are very good at doing what they were designed to do — dramatically reducing the dangers of COVID-19. While vaccines don't cut the risk of infection 100%, vaccinated people are less likely to catch the virus, and more likely to recover quickly if they do.
Sills says that's what he's seen play out this season in the NFL.
"COVID zero is not really achievable. It's not going to disappear, as much as we'd like that," he said.
But Sills has seen firsthand, in data the league collects every week on who gets sick with COVID-19, and how fast each player recovers, how much of a difference vaccines make.
The NFL regularly tests players, and has a quarantine system for breakthrough cases
Vaccinated NFL players can come back to the field as soon as they deliver two negative PCR (lab) tests, taken 24 hours apart, if they have also been asymptomatic for two full days.
Already, 20% of those players who've gotten COVID-19 have been able to test out of isolation early, before day 10, Sills said.
Unvaccinated players who get COVID-19 must continue to isolate away from their team for the full 10 days. That move isn't meant to punish unvaccinated players, instead, it reflects the science of how much faster vaccinated people tend to get rid of the virus, because of their robust immune response.
Vaccinated NFL players have a better immune response, allowing them to recover from illnesses faster, Sills said
According to Sills, unvaccinated NFL players "are much more likely to test positive," and get sick. If vaccinated athletes do catch the virus, they often don't even realize it.
"They think it's their allergies acting up, or just a cold," Sills said. "We've had to do a lot of education around 'if you feel something, say something.'"
This means the vaccines do a "terrific" job of what they were designed for, Sills said.
"They're clearing [the virus] quicker, because of their overwhelming immune response," Sills said of the vaccinated players recovering from COVID-19 infections so fast.
Because they are at a lower risk of getting infected in the first place, and a far lower risk of having a bad outcome if they do get ill, the NFL's vaccinated players get a few other perks too. They can travel on their off weeks, dine out, gather with family, and go maskless in NFL facilities. But Sills says those benefits were never designed to be punitive to the unvaccinated players in the league.
"They were simply designed to reflect [that] you're at a higher risk if you're unvaccinated than if you're vaccinated, so we're trying to adjust and protect each group," Sills said. "But as a result of that, it is a very different experience."
Based on the massive amounts of NFL data he's collected, the neurosurgeon's answer to those who question the vaccines is now clear.
"Are vaccines working? Yes," Sills said.
"They're preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death. Fewer people test positive who are vaccinated, and those who do test positive tend to have milder illness of a shorter duration."
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