What SEC football just taught us about COVID-19

Southeastern Conference (SEC) college football ushered in the return of maskless, full‑capacity crowds. It was the ultimate stress test of COVID-19.

As crowds returned to packed stadiums, there was much angst that they would be super spreader events. On Sept. 7, MSNBC’s Joy Reid asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, “As soon as I saw it [pictures of packed stadiums], I thought COVID-19 is about to have a feast. What did you think?” Fauci replied: “I thought the same thing. I think it’s really unfortunate.”

SEC football games are primarily located in states with relatively few state‑imposed COVID-19 restrictions (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas), and nine of the states have vaccination rates consistently lower than the national average. But while vaccination is our primary weapon to combat COVID-19 infection, natural immunity from prior infection also contributes to population immunity.

The average SEC stadium holds over 80,000 fans, and four of the stadiums have capacities exceeding 100,000. Stadium policies are set by each individual school, not the conference, and Louisiana State University (LSU) was the only SEC school to impose stadium entry COVID-19 protocols (proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test), although LSU lifted that restriction on Oct.16 when they hosted 96,000 fans.

SEC games are not just stadium gatherings. Tailgating, parties, and travel — both public and private — present opportunities for community transmission. But it didn’t happen. Population immunity levels in the context of mostly open‑air events are demonstrating that viral shedding in this setting is minimal and is not resulting in outbreaks.

To further study this observation, we examined the weekly new COVID-19 case rate in the home counties of the 14 SEC universities. The first home football games were the weekend of Sept. 4, when 10 teams hosted their season opener. A total of 98 home games were played over the three‑month season.

We found that the average infection rate for the week ending Aug. 8 (before most students returned to campus) was 0.35 percent. The average COVID-19 infection rate peaked at 0.49 percent for the week before football games began, and then steadily decreased to 0.08 percent for the week ending Oct. 31, after which it remained low. The average weekly infection rate for the five weeks before SEC football began was 0.44 percent, while the average weekly infection rate during the SEC football season was 0.18 percent. No evidence suggests that SEC football activities have led to COVID-19 outbreaks in the communities hosting the games. This is great news for players, fans and anyone who enjoys outdoor gatherings! 

Our findings are consistent with a recent JAMA study that found no instances of in-game COVID-19 transmission among college football players during last year’s 2020 football season. The hypothesis that SEC stadium gatherings would result in increased COVID-19 transmission is not supported by the data. Vaccination and natural immunity downgrade COVID-19 to an endemic mild virus. Let’s respect the evidence, enjoy outside gatherings and have the freedom to live our lives!

Elizabeth Plummer, Ph.D., CPA is a professor at Texas Christian University’s (TCU) Neeley School of Business and the TCU-University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Medicine. Marty Makary M.D., M.P.H. is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Carey Business School. He is the author of “The Price We Pay.” Twitter: @MartyMakary. Ge Bai, Ph.D., CPA is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School and Bloomberg School of Public Health. Twitter: @GeBaiDC. 

Tags Anthony Fauci Anthony Fauci COVID-19 COVID-19 pandemic Dr. Anthony Fauci MSNBC Public Health Emergency of International Concern Southeastern Conference

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