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U.S. professional sports leagues change their game plans as omicron infections climb

The world of professional sports is back in disarray with the entry of the omicron variant.

Players have been benched after testing positive, games have been canceled or postponed and leagues and players' unions are scrambling to figure out how to move forward under a cloud of uncertainty.

The NHL has postponed 27 games so far and will postpone another 12 through Thursday because of COVID. The NBA postponed five games because of the number of players and staff who had entered the league's COVID-19 protocols. NFL game delays were also piling up.

The NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association announced Sunday that the regular season would continue, but cross-border games between the U.S. and Canada would be rescheduled.

Just one day earlier, the NHL said it was stepping up coronavirus safety measures in the face of omicron through at least Jan. 7, including increased testing requirements for both vaccinated and unvaccinated players.

The NFL appeared to take a different tack. Starting on Sunday, the league said it would only test unvaccinated and symptomatic players, The Associated Press reported. Vaccinated players would no longer be tested weekly.

"It's not about loosening our standards," said Dr. Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer, according to the AP. "If anything, we're just bringing a higher degree of precision in measuring ourselves against a more precise ruler."

Sills encouraged players to report symptoms to the league, get booster shots and limit their exposure to the virus, according to NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo.

Scientists believe the omicron variant spreads faster than any previous variant, and it is also better at causing breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. What's unclear is whether it's more or less severe than previous strains, such as delta.

Professional sports leagues haven't required players to be vaccinated, but a vast majority of players have gotten the shot. The leagues also have rigorous testing regimes in place, and experts say that means it's possible the high number of infections they're recording now is a harbinger of what's to come for the population at large.

"I do worry that it's possible — maybe not likely, but possible — that these sports leagues' numbers are a bit of a canary in the coal mine for the rest of us," Zach Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, told NPR on Wednesday.

It's unclear how long this phase of increased caution will last. But the NHL and the players' union, citing disruptions to the schedule and the pandemic, also said they were "actively discussing" player participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics, set to begin in Beijing, China, in February.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.