- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2021

RICHMOND — Ron Rivera walked into the media room with a mask on for his first in-person press conference with reporters in over a year. He hesitated before taking it off. “You guys are vaccinated, right?” the Washington coach asked.

Rivera, months after battling cancer, checked for a reason: He revealed he’s considered immune deficient — which puts him at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of the virus.

That is also why, when given the chance, Rivera ripped into his players over their hesitancy — perhaps, outright refusal — to get vaccinated. As Washington prepares for its first training camp practice Wednesday, the team reportedly holds the league’s lowest vaccination rate as only 60% of its players have received at least one shot of the vaccine. Rivera didn’t confirm that number, but said the group was “over 50%.”

By comparison, 80% of the league’s players have at least one dose. Nine teams are over the 90% threshold, according to NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills.

“I’m truly frustrated,” Rivera said. “I’m beyond frustrated. … With this new (delta) variant, who knows? So, when I’m in a group and the group’s not vaccinated or there’s a mixture, I put the mask on, and I do that for health reasons because nobody really knows. I have to do that. “And I just wish and I hope that our guys can understand that.”

Rivera maintained that he wouldn’t “tell anyone what to do,” but he made clear the risk Washington faces the longer the team goes with a large percentage of players unvaccinated. He pointed to last year’s incident with the Broncos, when Denver was forced to start a wide receiver at quarterback against the New Orleans Saints after all their signal-callers were forced to quarantine. 
Washington made been pushing to get players vaccinated.

In June, Washingon brought in a renowned immunologist who gave a presentation about the vaccination. But Rivera said Tuesday that a lot of players still “have a lot of questions, unfortunately” and “haven’t gotten the answers by now.”

The coach said the situation was particularly frustrating because of the team’s success at preventing coronavirus cases in 2020. Last season, Washington had only two players test positive for the virus during the season — which Rivera said were the fewest in the league. The team largely followed the league’s protocols, aside from former starter Dwayne Haskins who was fined twice for breaking the rules.

Washington has made some progress on getting players vaccinated, and Rivera said the team was “trending in the right direction.” The Associated Press reported on July 16 that the Burgundy-and-Gold were one of four teams under a 50% vaccination rate. On Friday, the league said only five teams were below 70%.

But there are athletes, in football and across all of sports, who are clearly skeptical of taking the shots.

Defensive end Montez Sweat told reporters in June he “wasn’t a fan” of Washington’s information push, but added he wouldn’t get the vaccine until he got more answers. Around the league, there are other high-profile players like Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins and Buffalo’s Cole Beasley who have questioned the vaccine’s effectiveness.

If there is a gap between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t, Rivera acknowledged that the scenario could create tension in the locker room. Football, after all, is a team sport — one where coaches preach unity and sacrificing for the greater good.

Last week, the NFL said in a memo that games canceled because of a coronavirus outbreak among unvaccinated players would result in a forfeit — and loss of pay.

“You’re risking not just your paycheck but other people’s paychecks too if there’s no game played,” Rivera said. “I think that’s something that we all have to think about.”

Rivera said he understood that ultimately, it’s a player’s choice to get the shot. That said, he added he hoped players would “fall in line” and understand what is at stake.

“Hopefully they can understand how impactful not getting the vaccine is, “Rivera said. “You’d like to believe with all the news that’s been out there in terms of the fact that people are being hospitalized, that are dying from covid right now are those that aren’t vaccinated.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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