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Study: NFL games in 2020 led to COVID spikes in communities

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Because the NFL sought to resume play in the course of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some teams selecting to permit fans into stadiums, league officials insisted that football crowds had no negative impact on public health.

“We’re happy with that,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said on the time, “and we’re going to construct on that.”

But latest research suggests that even at significantly reduced capability, stadiums with 20,000 or more in attendance were related to subsequent case spikes in surrounding communities.

The study, published within the journal JAMA Network Open on Friday, examined 269 games in the course of the 2020-21 season, when some teams selected to play in empty stadiums while others allowed as much as 37% capability.

The Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had comparatively lenient policies, hosting crowds as large as 30,000. Researchers found that COVID-19 case rates greater than doubled within the counties where those stadiums were positioned and in neighboring counties.

Against this, teams that banned crowds or had fewer than 5,000 in attendance weren’t related to spikes.

“Given what we knew about COVID-19 and the way in which it spreads, we weren’t terribly surprised by our findings,” said co-author Wanda Leal, an assistant professor of criminology at Sam Houston State University who had previously studied crime rates amongst NFL players. “We thought it was something really necessary to have a look at.”

The info reinforce a 2020 study by Stanford researchers that suggested campaign events for former President Trump led to greater than 30,000 additional COVID-19 cases and a minimum of 700 additional deaths. Leal said: “Definitely our findings could translate to other mass gatherings.”

The 2020-21 NFL season began just eight or so months into the pandemic, before the widespread availability of vaccines or specialized treatments. That fall, there was much discussion concerning the trade-off between public safety and a growing desire to regain some normalcy.

Fans arrive at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., ahead of Super Bowl LV between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Feb. 7, 2021.

(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

The league established strict testing and get in touch with tracing amongst players and team staff, keeping in-house infection rates relatively low. But when it got here to fans, each franchise could set its own stadium policy in consultation with local public health authorities.

Twenty of the 32 teams settled on limited attendance, taking precautions that included augmented sanitation, fans seated in small clusters and social distancing throughout the venue.

The brand new study checked out 152 games with no fans and 117 games with crowds starting from 748 to 31,700. Leal and colleagues from universities across the nation — including public health experts — gathered COVID-19 data from applicable counties at intervals of seven, 14 and 21 days following games.

The seven-day interval showed no significant differences, which wasn’t surprising given the coronavirus’ incubation period on the time. After two and three weeks, nevertheless, the games with 20,000-plus attendance were related to 2.23 times the speed of spikes, the study said.

Previous research on the topic had produced mixed results; some studies had found a possible link between attendance at sporting events and spread of COVID-19, others had not.

This time, researchers were careful to state they might not assess cause and effect because they’d not confirmed transmission as directly linked to fan attendance. The info may have been influenced by overall public health regulations in each of the observed counties.

“What we did find was an association,” Leal said. “We feel that we presented quite strong evidence for the upper risk of spikes for COVID-19.”

The 2020-21 season ended with a Super Bowl where 24,000 people, including vaccinated healthcare employees, sat in predetermined seats amid 1000’s of cardboard cutouts. By then, the league had lost an estimated $4 billion in attendance-related revenue.

The next September, a latest season began with 65,566 fans gathering to observe the Buccaneers face the Cowboys in Tampa despite rising numbers resulting from the Delta variant. As one fan told The Times: “We got deprived last 12 months … it’s quite a lot of pent-up emotion and fervor and all that.”

Leal and her colleagues said their data call for a more thoughtful perspective.

“This study highlights the importance of a holistic approach to reopening and managing public events during a disease outbreak when vaccines and rapid testing will not be available,” they wrote. “Several lessons from the last [two] years will be applied to how we proceed our response to variants of COVID-19 and prepare for the subsequent threat — because there will probably be one other.”

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