In‑person college sports can create campus COVID‑19 spikes

An American football set on an empty field.
Photo by Dave Adamson

PULLMAN, Wash. – Even conservative epidemiological modeling from Washington State University shows an increase in COVID‑19 cases is likely in small college towns from sporting events with fans in the stands.

The WSU research team created a series of mathematical models that found in-person sports like football and basketball games created increased COVID‑19 cases among students by 25% in the best-case scenario to 822% in the worst. The analysis is detailed in a pre-print scientific paper, meaning it has not yet been peer-reviewed, on the medRxiv server.

“What we found is that even in really optimistic scenarios, where you have a fairly controlled outbreak on campus, and the visitors are coming from places that don’t have a lot of COVID‑19 cases already, you still see a pretty serious increase in the number of cases on hand, around 25%,” said lead author Eric Lofgren, a WSU epidemiologist. “That’s a big deal.”

Eric Lofgren portrait
Eric Lofgren

The worst spike of 822% would happen in a scenario where a college town had controlled its outbreak very well, but an influx of visitors from areas with higher COVID‑19 infection rates came to town to see the game.

These models also account for only an outbreak among students on campus. They do not trace the potential COVID‑19 spread among other town residents like restaurant staff and store clerks, or the visitors who may take the infection back to their home communities. The research team also did not model scenarios where the university already had an out-of-control spread because they assumed all events in such a scenario would be shut down.

Location is a critical factor, Lofgren pointed out, as many universities including WSU, Virginia Tech and Purdue attract outsiders into small towns with athletic events. The effect of a sporting event in a small town, which brings in visitors who often stay for a weekend and fill up the town, is more dramatic than one held in a big city.

The researchers simulated how visitors would interact not only in the stadium but also within a simulated town, which bears a conspicuous resemblance to Pullman. Even if fans are separated in the stands, they often pass each other in stadium hallways, concession stands and bathrooms as well as outside the stadium at tailgating parties, restaurants, bars and grocery stores — and it is these latter areas that are some of the easiest ways for the virus to be transmitted.

“Going to crowded bars, parties or anywhere that there’s a lot of people from different places who are cheering — these are epidemiologically very high‑risk activities,” Lofgren said.

The research team started their analysis this summer when many of the major conferences were cancelling plans for college football. Since then the Pac‑12 and Big‑10 conferences have announced plans for modified seasons, holding games without fans in the stands.

“In‑person sports are hard to justify, but many athletics departments are genuinely making a lot of efforts to keep their players safe,” Lofgren said. “I think it’s possible to have an entire sports season that’s not associated with any major outbreaks as we’ve seen with the NBA. It just requires a lot of caution.”

Taking away the stadium audience and issuing prohibitions on large gatherings and tailgating, such as what WSU is doing, will help, Lofgren said. But there are limits on how much colleges can control.

“If a university decides to have no‑audience football, the onus sort of shifts to the fans,” he said. “If we as fans want to watch sports, we need to understand that we can mitigate the risks of COVID to the players and that means watching games with your immediate family at home.”

Lofgren concedes that this likely not ideal for many football fans, but it may be necessary to be able to watch football at all. If the players get sick, the season could get shut down.

“The easiest way to get things back to normal is to accept that they’re not going to be normal for a while,” he said.

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