So far, COVID-19 spikes from college football games haven’t materialized
Despite concern about packed college football stadiums during the pandemic, college towns like Gainesville aren’t seeing upticks in COVID-19 cases, said University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins, Ph.D., who tracks coronavirus trends nationwide.
“I’m not seeing a lot of COVID ramifications,” she said. “When we see these full stadiums, it makes people feel nervous because we've been avoiding crowds for such a long time. But some of these outdoor events really are not the super spreader events that people have worried they're going to be.”
Why aren’t cases spiking after football weekends?
“There are a lot of factors. One is that people are outdoors, and we know now that being outside comes with a much lower risk of transmission. I would also say that when you are seated in a stadium, the people who are the riskiest are the ones that are immediately around you — they may be the people that you came with. They're the people on either side of you, maybe the folks in front of or in back of you, but it's really a limited area. Another factor, especially in Florida: We're still in pretty high heat and humidity, and COVID doesn't linger as long in that heavy air.”
Could that change for cooler, drier games?
“It's possible. We don't know to what extent the humidity cuts down on real person-to-person transmission. But even though I think the humidity may be helping, it doesn't necessarily mean that colder, drier weather is going to make people get COVID at these games.”
How does what we're seeing compare to what you or other epidemiologists expected to see?
“I would never say no one's ever going to get COVID-19 at a football game, but I wasn't very concerned about football games because of the outdoor factor. A lot of epidemiologists have expressed some concern, and again, it just comes from the idea that you do have a lot of people gathering together.”
There was also concern about bars and restaurants and parties mixing populations from different communities, but that doesn't seem to have had the effect that we thought it might.
“It might've been different if it were two months ago, if we were still going up in cases. Right now, we are on the down slope from our peak of delta virus cases. As we're coming down, we're also seeing that we have a decent number of people vaccinated, especially in Alachua County.”
When a team comes in from a place that has lower vaccination rates, do you think there might be a different outcome?
“Even though people do interact, there's clustering even within the stadium. We have clustering of students together. We have clustering of probably some of our older, more vaccinated people together, and then our visitors are mainly sitting in one section.”
Is it possible we may not notice a spike because people coming in from out of town disperse after the weekend and don’t show up in case counts?
“Gainesville’s almost an ideal place to look at this type of thing, because we are a smaller community. We're not a giant city. The bulk of the people who go to those games, or enough of them that go to those games, are still local to this area. Our UF Health Screen, Test & Protect program is really great at identifying cases associated with the university, and we're not seeing a bump on that level. And I think that's really critical that we're able to look at the UF community, Gainesville and other surrounding communities and see that they haven't had increases in cases either.”
What should people going to a football game keep in mind?
“Number one, you want to be vaccinated. That is the most critical part of protecting yourself and others and being able to do these activities and feel comfortable. I would definitely wear a mask. I would certainly wear it while I'm waiting to get into the stadium with other people, I'd wear it when I was going to the concession stand. For me, I would still wear it during the game. Some people may feel more comfortable if they're seated and they know that people around them are vaccinated, but otherwise, keep that mask in place and be vaccinated.”
Cindy Prins, a University of Florida Health infectious disease epidemiologist, is an associate professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the UF College of Medicine.