No one has a definitive answer to combat or solve the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Health and safety experts provide their recommendations to government officials and organizations, including professional sports leagues, though most are left to develop their own processes within that guidance.
Such is the case with the NFL. Prior to the 2020 season, the NFL and NFLPA established a COVID Medical Advisory Task Force to develop player safety protocols on screening and testing, isolation and exposure mitigation, treatment and management, and disinfection and equipment. All 32 teams were required to submit an Infectious Disease Emergency Response plan outlining their specific protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 to complement the measures put in place by the league, including staff at team facilities wearing masks, social distancing protocols, limiting numbers inside facilities, and conducting virtual meetings when possible.
The Denver Broncos are utilizing Ultraviolet-C (UVC) light as part of their health and safety measures. The organization is employing one UV-C Enclosure (UVE) from Colorado-based UV-Concepts.
“There’s no broad thing the league put out saying, ‘This is how you need to clean your footballs or facility,’ so it’s up to teams to figure out,” said Chip Conway, Broncos senior vice-president of operations. “We’re fortunate we’re in the same area of UV-Concepts and I’m happy they reached out to us. It’s been invaluable, just saving time for our staff because there’s so much we have to do with a lot less people.
“Staying in line with league protocols is tough to do, so having all these different tools at your fingertips makes us and players feel better, and they’re seeing how much we’re doing to keep them safe.”
The UVE is a portable UVC enclosure—interior measurements are 80 inches high, 36 inches wide and 50 inches deep—that emits ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 254 nanometers. Over the course of a 60-second cycle, anything from a rack of footballs to a tackling dummy or sets of dumbbells are exposed to the light from all angles, disinfecting it from bacteria and viruses.
UV light technology is becoming more popular as organizations and companies seek multi-faceted measures to combat COVID-19. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins are using similar technology from Healthe Lighting throughout their facilities. UV technology has also been employed at Magnolia Bakery in New York City, the Space Needle in Seattle, and at Columbia University, as well as to disinfect airplane cabins, hotels, subway cars and cruise ships.
UVC light, which falls between 280-200 nanometers, is one of four subcategories of UV light based on wavelength: UVA (400-315 nm), UVB, UVC and vacuum-UV (200-100 nm).
While studies have yet to confirm if UVC light is able to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers believe there is a spectrum of UVC light that can kill viruses without being harmful to humans.
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center determined 99.9% of seasonal coronaviruses present in airborne droplets were killed when exposed to far-UVC light at 222 nanometers. Far-UVC light can’t penetrate the tear layer of the eye or the outer dead-cell layer of the skin, according to the study, meaning it’s unable to reach and potentially damage living cells in the body.
“Because it’s safe to use in occupied spaces like hospitals, buses, planes, trains, train stations, schools, restaurants, offices, theaters, gyms, and anywhere that people gather indoors, far-UVC light could be used in combination with other measures … to limit the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses,” the study’s lead author David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told USA Today.
The Broncos are testing the UV-C Enclosure via a pilot program. The organization got the enclosure in mid-September and has mainly used it in their equipment storage area. Staff can bring equipment in from the field, run a cycle, then bring the equipment back onto the field in a matter of minutes; each cycle is logged via a digital tag and stored in a cloud-based platform to ensure proper use, tracking and disinfection frequency.
Conway, who has been in charge of the safety and sanitization of team facilities during the pandemic, said he can see the Broncos using another machine in the weight room.
“We spray a lot of chemicals in the weight room, so if we can lessen that amount we’re spraying and breathing in, I think it would be better for everyone,” he said. “I definitely see the benefit of UVC and the studies I’ve seen are very encouraging. … It’s definitely something that I think we’re on the tip of the iceberg of finding different areas to use it in. I definitely see it expanding for sure.”
Founded in 2016, UV-Concepts is one of a number of UV-based companies on the market. Their main goal was to combat the disinfection deficiencies in healthcare, but expanded their focus to non-healthcare sectors as a result of the pandemic.
The UVE, which launched in July, is being utilized by UCLA Medical Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, and other hospitals around the country to disinfect wheelchairs, IV poles, ventilators and other equipment. Units are set up in five offices at gaming giant Activision Blizzard, and UV-Concepts is set to launch in the first-responder market in all 50 states.
“There isn’t one smoking gun out there that will solve all your disinfecting needs,” said Jason Ylizarde, UV-Concepts co-founder and CCO. “We feel we created a novel solution for a very specific niche that isn’t being solved by any other technology out there. There are other UV-based platforms out there like UV towers and wands, but there are different challenges and hurdles when you implement other tech like that.
“UV light doesn’t leave any type of chemical residue or has any harmful effects like chemical disinfectants would to the user. You take out all human variability with it—run a cycle and it’s done the same every single time.”
Ylizarde said UV-Concepts is starting to engage in conversations with the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers as well.
“UV disinfection is seen as a supplementary disinfection method to the overall disinfection method,” he said, “but in my opinion it will become the gold standard disinfection method rather than complementary.”