As some prominent Vikings players remain unvaccinated, renowned epidemiologist Michael Osterholm visited TCO Performance Center to speak during a team meeting on Monday morning.
Osterholm, the University of Minnesota infectious disease expert, is the latest medical professional to speak to a Vikings team that, as of earlier this month, had the league's lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate among players, according to a league source. The NFL has since announced that all locker rooms have reached a 75% vaccination rate.
Coach Mike Zimmer has been vocal since the spring about pushing players to get vaccinated for health and availability reasons. Vaccinated players are freed of many NFL restrictions from the 2020 season that remain in place for unvaccinated players, including mask wearing, social distancing, daily testing, different travel protocols and rules prolonging their return to play after infection or close contact.
"It went well," Zimmer said. "He's one of the top specialists in the world, and I thought he was very good with his points, answered a lot of questions. Whether or not that changes anything, I don't know. We were very thankful he was able to come over here and talk to the team in person."
"He understands the importance of when people look up to our football players," Zimmer added, "especially now with all the — and I don't want to get into it all that much — but with this delta variant and how it's affecting younger people all over the world, I think that the more we can show it's safe and young kids, not younger than 11, but these kids can get vaccinated, we're all going to stay healthier."
Zimmer wasn't sure whether the FDA's approval of the Pfizer vaccine Monday would lead to more vaccinations among players. Kirk Cousins was quarantined earlier this month because he was unvaccinated and deemed a close contact to fellow quarterback Kellen Mond, who was also unvaccinated when he tested positive for COVID-19. Mond missed 10 days of camp, while Cousins missed five, before protocols allowed them to return to the team. Receiver Adam Thielen, safety Harrison Smith and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson have previously said they are unvaccinated.
"Some of the questions that were asked are things you hear on the internet," Zimmer said. "Like [Osterholm] said, he was going to be 100% honest. If he knows the answer, he'll tell it. If he didn't know it, he would tell it as well. I thought he did a terrific job and hopefully it helps. I just care about these players and I care about their families. So that's my main reason. If they miss a game because of COVID, so be it. But I don't want them to get sick and I don't want their families to get sick or their kids to get sick or my grandkids to get sick."
Rookie receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, one of just two players made available to reporters on Monday morning, said the talk was "informational" for players.
"It was good," Smith-Marsette said. "Just having him talk, letting people know more knowledge about vaccines and stuff like that. I mean, it was good. I'm pretty much vaccinated."
The Vikings do not currently require fans to be vaccinated to attend home games. The Raiders require proof of COVID vaccination at their home games in Las Vegas, which has a state mask mandate for venues of 4,000 or more people unless attendees are vaccinated. The Saints, following New Orleans city guidelines, also require least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative PCR test.
"As we have throughout this pandemic, we are following CDC and Minnesota Department of Health guidance and working closely with the league and the state on all of our decisions," said Jeff Anderson, Vikings vice president for strategic and corporate communications. "We will continue monitoring the COVID situation in Minnesota and discussing a number of options internally and with NFL and local medical advisors over the next few weeks."