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With troubling air quality forecasts, 49ers—especially Tevin Coleman—face nebulous proposition



Photo Credit: 49ers – Terrell Lloyd

This is not your grandparents’ season opener. Sunday, September 13 (an apt date if you’re superstitious) figures to be perhaps the oddest opening day in NFL history, featuring a mostly fan-less spate of games.

For the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, it may not actually be the date their seasons begin. If current air quality forecasts for Santa Clara are both accurate for Levi’s Stadium and hold steady for a substantial period of time, the 49ers and Cardinals could have to postpone the game.

It would represent the first postponed NFL game since Hurricane Irma forced the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to push back a meeting in 2017 (both teams luckily had the same bye week to reschedule), and just the fourth since 2010, when the Minnesota Vikings had their roof collapse and later had another game postponed in Philadelphia due to a snowstorm, resulting in the NFL’s first-ever Tuesday game.

Per Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports, the 49ers and NFL league office have been in communication about a potential postponement of Sunday’s game, which would normally be discussed the day before.

Per a team spokesperson, the team and NFL use a “much more accurate” AQI monitoring system than the ones available to the general public, though the league does uses AirNow.Gov. The team uses its own system of sensors at its facility in Santa Clara.

Multiple public monitors—the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Airnow.Gov, IQ Air, Accuweather, AQICN.org, Weather Underground and the iPhone’s Weather app—all measured the air quality in the Santa Clara area as above 200 AQI by 11:30 a.m., when the 49ers began practicing.

IQ Air forecasts the air quality for Saturday and Sunday to be at 216 and 217 AQI, respectively, while AQICN forecasts an astonishing plus-400 AQI from Friday throughout most of Monday.

The issue is that forecasts vary based on equipment, and cannot predict exactly how wind conditions will change. Normally, a reliable sea breeze would help to clear out much of the smoke in the Bay Area, but due to less heat from the lack direct sunlight due to the smoke, that has not occurred.

If the AQI does reach 200 for a sustained period of time, the 49ers would have to postpone the game, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan, as he said on KNBR Friday morning.

“Once it gets to 200, you’re not allowed to be out there after that,” Shanahan said. “If it gets to 200 that would be a huge deal. I know when it’s above 150 that does affect a certain group of people that happen to be higher risk, pre-existing conditions. If it got above 150 you could lose a few players, but 200 is the mark where you can’t go out there.”

However, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, so-to-speak. The NFL’s league office has the discretion to evaluate conditions and determine whether, or at least when the game is played. The league’s gameday operations handbook identifies that medical experts agree on a 200-plus AQI measured “consistently… in the immediate vicinity of the stadium” as a very unhealthy situation in which vigorous exercise should not occur.

NFL Operations has contingency plans in place for situations like these, though Shanahan said he was not aware of what those plans were. The Operations department follows AirNow.Gov and also consults with the league’s contracted weather service and other local agencies, using their local data and monitoring tools. Again, the 49ers have their own sensors at their facility to track AQI data.

Per the gameday operations handbook, the league will keep open the option to relocate the game, even on the day of, though the standard for that to occur needs to be “definitive” and prolonged:

“NFL Football Operations will also consult with the NFL Chief Medical Officer and other medical consultants as may be deemed helpful to get medical input on the air conditions and potential medical implications. Accordingly, NFL Football Operations will work closely with the home club and local authorities and will be prepared to relocate a game if there is definitive evidence that the AQI will remain consistently above 200 for a significant period of time, including the day of the game being played in the affected stadium.”

The most likely scenario for postponement of the game would be later on Sunday or even Monday (though that could potentially cause issues with ESPN’s Monday Night Football rights, given that FOX is broadcasting the 49ers game).

Aside from the ensuing logistical nightmare that moving the game to Arizona on short notice would create, the Cardinals’ State Farm Stadium is currently being used for an indoor RV show through the weekend (don’t ask me). Another consideration in potentially moving the game to Arizona is that teams are holding out hope of having fans in their stadium in the latter part of the year if a coronavirus vaccine comes, and Arizona would not likely want to have this early road game flipped to the end of the season.

Signs are pointing towards the game continuing in Santa Clara; the question is whether the 1:25 start time holds firm, or if it’s pushed back. If the 49ers and Cardinals do play on Sunday, the forecasts indicate it would the air quality would likely remain in the unhealthy category.

In a phone call with KNBR, Dr. Mary Prunicki, the director of Air Pollution and Health Research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University, explained that research on the effects of wildfire smoke inhalation is somewhere near its infancy and that determining exactly how people, especially of the healthy, fit variety, like athletes, are affected by it in the short- and long-term, is an inexact proposition.

In essence, we know that inhaling bad air, is, well, bad, and the more of it you inhale, the more likely you are to have respiratory problems, heart failure, or even cancer. But, like with concussions, the creation of any sort of formula or rubric for what to expect based on the amount of unhealthy you inhale for the amount of time you inhale it, simply has not happened. The data is not there.

There is some data, like a study from 2015-17, looking at California wildfires, which showed that out-of-hospital cardiac arrest was increased by 70 percent in people 35 years old and up, especially in people with lower socioeconomic status, who inhaled wildfire smoke.

Studies also show that increased air pollution, including from wildfire smoke results in more extreme, and higher fatality percentages in cases of COVID-19. This is according to multiple studies, including one from Harvard. The smoke compromises microphages, which fight bacteria, putting your immune system at a suboptimal level.

Prunicki’s advice to the 49ers was for those outside to keep masks on when possible, though they won’t provide total security. N95 masks, reserved for front-line workers are best at preventing smoke inhalation. A surgical mask “provides around 50 percent protection,” assuming it’s properly secured, while a cloth mask is less effective, and something like a bandana or a neck gaiter is the worst option.

“Any type of mask will help some,” Prunicki said. “But it’s not perfect.”

AQI is also imperfect, Prunicki said, especially with the guidance surrounding it. The shift from one point of AQI, say from 200 to 199, does not inherently mean you are substantially safer in terms of air quality.

“It doesn’t really matter what AQI is if your body is telling you something’s wrong,” Prunicki said. “[Players] don’t have to justify not feeling well. Anything unusual, they should certainly let somebody know—chest tightness, or any respiratory problems at all, because everyone could have a slightly different susceptibility.”

Again, the average NFL player is not part of the susceptible population, but someone with a pre-existing condition is at substantially higher risk. That includes running back Tevin Coleman, who did not practice on Friday due to 150-200 level, unhealthy AQI. That also happened earlier in camp, as Coleman, a sickle cell trait carrier, left the field during practice. Coleman also had to make the decision to play a game in Denver, Colorado in 2016, with concerns about the thin air at Mile High Stadium.

Shanahan said the decision to play is up to him, but he will obviously consult team doctors.

“Tevin will do what’s right for him, what’s safe,” Shanahan said. “I know he’s going to want to play extremely hard and be out there. I know that it kills him not to be, but I also know Tevin will make the right decision. I know our doctors will help him with that.”

Again, there’s no clear answer as to how exactly players will be affected by playing in poor air quality, which is all but assured. It may not reach the 200 AQI level for the sustained period necessary to postpone the game, but the air quality on Sunday is at least expected to be in the “unhealthy” range from 150-200 AQI.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say on the cellular level, it’s going to impact them,” Prunicki said. “Is it going to be expressed clinically or long term? We don’t know.”