To avoid pandemic-related disruptions continuing into the 2021 season, head coach Mike Zimmer is imploring Vikings players to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And the NFL is helping the Vikings, along with 31 other teams, in attempts to increase vaccination rates through education and incentives in relaxed protocols.
The Vikings held a virtual meeting on Wednesday morning with Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer who made the case for why wary players should get vaccinated. Afterward, Zimmer pointed to the competitive benefits in saying it's "not only the safety part of getting vaccinated, but as far as being part of a football team, it's just going to be so much easier."
In a memo released Wednesday, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed on extended COVID protocols through training camp and the preseason that will keep restrictions on unvaccinated players while removing many from the fully vaccinated.
Vaccinated players will only be tested once every two weeks, compared to daily for unvaccinated individuals. If vaccinated, masks are no longer required in team facilities or during travel, nor is social distancing with other vaccinated people. Quarantine is no longer required for vaccinated players who are deemed high-risk close contacts with an infected person.
Unvaccinated players face up to five-figure fines for violating protocols, which include restrictions on gathering with players away from the team facility as well as in the weight room, cafeteria and meeting rooms. NFL rules also prevent them from socializing with non-team members, like friends and family, during road games.
"When we go on the road, they won't be able to go out to dinner with anybody," Zimmer said. "They'll have to travel on buses differently, travel on planes differently. A lot of the meetings will be virtual."
"Like me, for instance," Zimmer added, "we had a staff meeting the other day, and everybody's in the same room. We can sit there and talk, as opposed to do this like we're doing here [on a Zoom call with reporters]."
Zimmer's comments came a day after three players – defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, receiver Adam Thielen, and safety Harrison Smith – said they had not yet been vaccinated. The Vikings' efforts to educate players include hosting former players, independent medical experts, and NFLPA officials to discuss why players should be vaccinated, according to a team source.
The Vikings have nearly three months before the Sept. 12 season opener in Cincinnati, by which time COVID exposure could lead to unvaccinated players missing playing time.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that more than half of NFL players have vaccinated, adding 16 teams have more than 50 of their 90 players vaccinated and three teams have 70 or more. Four teams – the Colts, Jaguars, Cardinals, and Chargers – are among teams with notably low rates, per the report.
"One of the players asked about if they would need to get a booster shot at some point," Zimmer said of the team meeting with Dr. Sills. "There is a lot of those things and we're just trying to educate those guys. They have to make their own decisions. The unvaccinated players are going to have a hard time during the season."
Quarterback Kirk Cousins said he chooses "to keep my medical history private" when asked Wednesday about whether he's vaccinated.
"It'll be a lot like last year to that degree," Cousins said. "We already lived it for one season. It's a fluid situation as it has been since the COVID pandemic began. We'll kind of take it one week at a time, one month at a time, and see where we are when we get to the season. And you know, it's so important that we focus on football as well and make sure we're winning football games. That's what really it'll be about."
Linebacker Eric Kendricks, tight end Tyler Conklin, and nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about asthma, are among the Vikings' vaccinated players.
"I did that because obviously I want to travel about and see members of my family and friends and not get them sick," Kendricks said, "as well as me not get sick."
Richardson, who signed a one-year, $3.6 million deal on Tuesday, said he's still learning about the vaccine.
"I'm trying to find out as much information as I can about it," Richardson said. "I've gotta wear masks and stuff like that, so that's why I'm in a room right now by myself and I'm just dealing with it. Last year, as far as being a player, it was probably one of the best seasons I've had in the NFL since I stepped on the field."
"Guys actually had a life a little bit," Richardson added. "Got to be home, virtual meetings, they tried to take up most of your time throughout the mornings, and then the only time you went up to the facility was for practice, and then your lift. You can't really beat it."