Bears send players and coaches home after Cody Whitehair reportedly is latest to test positive for COVID-19

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Center Cody Whitehair directs the Bears offensive line against the Vikings on Dec. 29, 2019, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. - Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears closed their facilities Thursday as they deal with a potential COVID-19 outbreak ahead of Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans.

NFL Network reported center Cody Whitehair tested positive for COVID-19, a revelation that comes two days after it was revealed swing tackle Jason Spriggs tested positive. Right guard Germain Ifedi has been in quarantine as a close contact with Spriggs.

The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs reports Whitehair might not be the only new addition to the COVID-19 list, which is for players who either test positive or have been in close contact with someone who has. Whitehair didn’t practice Wednesday because he has a calf injury, but was present during the portion of practice open to the media.

The Bears were at their team facility Thursday morning when offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano spoke to the media from the Halas Hall podium. But about one hour later, word spread that players and staff were cleared from the Lake Forest facility.

The Bears made a statement around 10:30 a.m. that they canceled practice and would conduct meetings virtually.

“The player who tested positive and all close contacts have been contacted and have already begun self-isolation,” the statement said. “We will continue to work closely with the NFL medical experts and follow the league’s intensive protocol. The health and safety of our team, players and staff are the highest priority.”

Bears coach Matt Nagy is slated to speak with the media later and should speak about whether the latest developments will affect their travel plans to Nashville.

The league currently does not have plans to change the date of the game but would consider doing so if there was evidence of widespread transmission throughout a team that would jeopardize the health of players and staff, an NFL spokesman said Thursday afternoon. Since Oct. 12, the day after the NFL rearranged eight games, 21 teams have placed players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and the teams’ games have not been moved. The NFL is trying to avoid adding an 18th week to the season and so far has done that.

NFL protocols mandate that any “high risk close contact” with individuals who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for a minimum of five days. That would mean any player who had extended close contact with Whitehair would miss Sunday’s Week 9 game. As a center, Whitehair typically comes in contact with both the offensive line and the quarterbacks but whether any of that contact was deemed high risk is to be announced.

This is the first time during the season the Bears have had more than one positive test at a time, though there was a scare in August when a lab error resulted in 77 false positives from multiple NFL teams. Practice squad offensive lineman Badara Traore tested positive Oct. 10, and offensive line coach Juan Castillo missed the Bears’ Week 6 game against the Carolina Panthers because he was in quarantine after coming in close contact with an individual who tested positive.

As COVID-19 cases rise around the country, the NFL is also feeling that surge.

The league announced Wednesday eight players and 17 personnel had confirmed positive tests during the previous week.

Among the teams with COVID-19 concerns this week are the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions, the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens, the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts. The 49ers put four offensive players on the COVID-19 reserve list Wednesday, but they still were slated to play Thursday night’s game against the Packers.

The NFL sent out a memo to teams this week with updated protocols in a continued effort to curb the spread of the virus. The league is encouraging players to wear masks on the sideline when they are not in the game and mandating masks in the locker room pregame, at halftime and postgame.

The Bears’ COVID-19 concerns come as they prepare to face the team that endured the worst outbreak so far this season. The Titans had 24 positive tests among players and staff from Sept. 24-Oct. 11, and the NFL fined the team $350,000 for COVID-19 precaution violations.

They had three of their games rescheduled during that time.

“We were away for so long, so that was the difficult thing,” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel Wednesday on a Zoom call with Chicago media. “You’re just trying to stay upbeat in the zoom meetings, staying positive, reminding everybody that we would get through it, that there was nobody at fault. It was just something that we had to deal with. And it was something that we had to stick together through and be ready for when things did get back going.”

Vrabel said the anxiety of not knowing if more positive tests were coming also was difficult.

“It was like waking up every morning at 3:30, waiting for the results at 4:30 not knowing what it’s going to be today,” he said. “We had two days of clean results and no new positives and then on the third day, bam. That was a punch in the gut to not only me but to have to the tell the team that.”

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