FOUR days after receiving a positive test result, Khari Jones still has no idea how he contracted COVID-19.
Well, maybe a bit of an idea. With the Montreal Alouettes on a recent bye week, Jones, the team’s head coach since 2019, decided to take advantage of the rare in-season break. He headed home to Surrey, B.C., to see family and then detoured to Toronto, where he visited his daughter, who is attending York University.
"If I were to guess where I got it from it would be maybe on the travelling side of things, because that’s the only thing that has changed with my routine," Jones, a former Blue Bomber great, said in a phone interview with the Free Press Thursday. "I’m just happy no one else got it and believe me, I’ll be even more adamant about things now."
Despite doing everything in his power to play it safe, including walking whenever possible and being double vaccinated, Jones still tested positive upon his return to Montreal Sunday. Luckily, no one else in his family or anyone on the Alouettes have tested positive. That’s music to Jones’ and the Alouettes’ ears, and to the CFL, which has had to navigate through the global pandemic with a palpable level of uneasiness, knowing the coronavirus can strike at any time.
That leaves Jones as the only one to have to self-isolate for 10 days, a stretch that will have him watching Saturday’s game against the B.C. Lions from home. He said he feels fine, just a little fatigued and some minor aches to deal with. He’s been able to communicate with his coaches from a distance, and with video calls the new normal these days, hasn’t really missed a beat.
It will be odd, Jones admitted, not to be patrolling the sidelines this weekend. Assistant coach André Buldoc has been running practice all week and will handle the coaching duties on Saturday.
"It’s been weird, that’s the only way to say it," Jones added. "All of us, a little bit, think we’re bulletproof and that it won’t happen to us. But the reality is this could be a real problem if it does happen — with the team, with the CFL — and so I’m telling the players all the time that it’s easy to get lax on health protocols but, fortunately, we’ve stayed pretty tight with things."
What’s happening in Montreal is just the latest reminder that the CFL, like all things, are not immune to the challenges that comes with COVID-19. It also puts a direct spotlight on the fact that no matter how closely you follow provincial health guidelines, there’s always a chance you could contract the virus.
The CFL spent more than a year fine-tuning their health protocols. They cancelled the entire 2020 season owing to COVID-19, with the full understanding that being unable to contain the virus would surely be a death strike to the bottom line.
When they made the decision to play a 14-game regular-season in 2021, what followed was a series of detailed rules for teams to follow.
In the ensuing months since the season kicked off on Aug. 5, there have been stricter rules put in place, particularly when it comes to unvaccinated players.
While vaccinated players can enjoy meals with family and friends on the road, among other benefits, those who aren’t vaccinated have to endure more testing and are required to wear masks on the sidelines.
One of the earliest additional measures put forth by the league, in an effort to send a clear message behind the seriousness of cancelling games, included an expectation that of all team personnel – coaches, players, anyone who regularly travels – 85 per cent must be fully vaccinated. For those clubs that don’t hit that 85 per cent threshold, if there was to be an outbreak within the team and a game was cancelled and couldn’t be rescheduled, then no one would receive a pay cheque.
As of last week, only four teams – the Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Lions – had hit the required mark. But word is there are a few other teams not far behind. The CFL issued a COVID-19 update late last week, indicating that through the first five weeks of play, 12,500 tests were administered and only 30 of those came back positive.
The Edmonton Elks are the only team to have had a sizable outbreak so far this season, with 13 players testing positive. One player, offensive lineman Jacob Ruby, was released by the Elks for lying to the team that he had been vaccinated. The league then sent out a memo to all the other eight teams forbidding them to sign Ruby this year, ultimately ending his season.
The outbreak resulted in the cancellation of Edmonton’s Week 4 matchup against the Toronto Argonauts, which has since been moved to Nov. 16. As a result of the schedule shuffling, the Elks will now play three games over a seven-day stretch, which was approved by the player’s association.
While the CFL has issued an across-the-board set of health protocols for all teams to follow, it also requires help from each club to not only enforce the rules but also to educate and carefully encourage players to get vaccinated. The league has said repeatedly the importance of getting vaccinated to the CFL’s overall health, and as of this week, all nine venues across the CFL will require fans to be fully vaccinated or show proof of a negative test within 48 hours of a game.
Some teams have even put their own measures in. Toronto and Calgary require all their coaching staff to be fully vaccinated. Argonauts defensive co-ordinator Glenn Young and defensive backs coach Joshua Bell have both since been put on leave.
While it’s impossible to point directly to one thing that has some teams possessing a higher vaccination rate than others, a team’s culture is a good place to start. For instance, those clubs that have the highest vaccination rates have their leaders and best players vaccinated. Because after all, if your quarterback or defensive star isn’t willing to get the jab, that reluctance, without giving out names, has had a definite ripple effect among the rest of the team.
The Bombers are more than 90 per cent vaccinated, including the entire coaching staff, with only about two or three players still holding out. Even before training camp, players were put through education seminars with medical professionals outlining the safety of getting vaccinated. If players had questions, they were offered the opportunity to ask them privately.
To date, the Bombers have yet to register a positive test.
"We’ve just had to learn how to deal with it. A good thing with this program is we adapt to a lot of things and try to overcome," Bombers receiver Kenny Lawler said. "COVID-19 isn’t an issue for us but if it comes here, we’re going to attack it, we’re going to adapt and adjust."
A big reason for why the Bombers have been successful in preventing an outbreak is because of the culture head coach Mike O’Shea has instilled in Winnipeg. Players rarely stray from his message, which is always to act as if the consequences of your actions have a greater effect on the team.
That culture will face its biggest test next week, when the Bombers part ways for their first bye week of the season. More than 10 players are expected to head home, including some to the U.S. After what happened in Montreal this week, O’Shea was asked if the message to players has been altered at all, or if it even needs to be.
"I think it’s the same message; we always ask guys to be safe," O’Shea said. "We’ll say the same thing this year, it’ll just have that added idea that part of being safe is navigating where we’re at in society right now, in terms of the pandemic. They’ve been living in this for a long time. They’ve already suffered through the season that didn’t happen and they understand it’s not just about starting once again, it’s about finishing the season."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.