Keeping Games Safe: How to Mitigate the Spread of COVID in a Crowd

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The omicron variant has again changed the pandemic ball game, and mitigating risk at sporting events is a delicate and potentially intimidating dilemma. Overlaying protective strategies, including mask and vaccine requirements and eliminating eating and drinking can reduce the risk that events pose for transmission.

How can crowds safely attend basketball games this season?

“Safe” is a qualitative term, said Dr. Josh Liao, associate professor in the University of Washington School of Medicine. Any crowd or gathering carries a risk, and it’s important to know that security is a spectrum, not a switch.

The safest gathering, of course, is one that doesn’t take place. And if the teams took the most extreme precautions, there would be no spectators at all.

If crowds gather to watch sporting events, especially indoors, the layering of mitigation strategies becomes extremely important, Liao said.

What mitigation strategies exist to reduce the risk of transmission?

Improving the environments where games are held is important to making indoor events safer, Liao said. Venues can improve ventilation and air circulation to make arenas safer for participants.

Beyond the actual environment, how people move around is also important. Do people sit and watch the game or do they get up and move around several times during the event? Are there concessions, and if so, are people being exposed and eating or drinking for long periods of time?

At Gonzaga University, concessions have been banned from all upcoming sporting events this week, a move that could limit transmission of the virus.

As Liao pointed out, there is a big difference in an environment where people sit and watch a game versus eating, drinking, interacting and moving around more.

“Behavior plays an incredible role here,” Liao said.

While no behavior is zero risk, eliminating higher risk behaviors, like eating or drinking, should mean people will not remove their masks.

Are mask and vaccine requirements sufficient to prevent epidemics?

Health officials are recommending people upgrade their masks in the face of an increase in the number of omicron cases statewide. If you still wear a cloth mask, consider adding a disposable surgical mask underneath.

If available, wear a KN95 or N95 mask for added protection against the highly transmissible variant.

The requirements for masks for big events are great, Liao said, but more importantly, people need to wear them correctly.

Sites and universities can help set standards of behavior by having signage or even staff reminding people to wear their masks properly. With eating and drinking off the table, universal masking is much more possible.

Sporting events are different from watching a movie or a play. Things like cheering or yelling are the norm, and masks become even more important when you do these activities, which produce more respiratory droplets, which the virus travels around.

Requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status, ensures that anyone who might have a breakthrough case or an asymptomatic infection has a reduced risk of infecting others.

Not all sporting events with crowds have resulted in an epidemic, but it can happen.

A weekend of wrestling tournaments last December in western Washington resulted in the spread of omicron and hundreds of people testing positive for the virus.

State health officials said reports and photos from the tournament showed there was a lack of masking compliance and distancing at the events.

The need for vaccines is also great, Liao said. Fully vaccinated and boosted individuals are better protected against the omicron variant.

What other policies can universities or teams implement?

Many college campuses have vaccine requirements for students and staff. Some even have testing requirements and symptom checks.

Liao said colleges and universities could apply the same strict and onerous requirements they have for members of their community to those who attend sporting events.

“It doesn’t make sense to fortify one side of a house and then let the wind blow on the other three sides,” he said.

Creating consistency between institutional settings, not only for students, staff, and guests, also helps create standards and expectations for everything from sporting events to the smallest gatherings on campus.

How transmissible is omicron?

Omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant.

Experts have estimated that with the original strain, a person infected with the virus would infect two to five others. With delta, an infected person could infect four to seven others. With omicron, an infected person can infect more than four people, possibly up to 10.

Someone who gets omicron will likely give it to more people than previous variants, which means it spreads much faster, as recent case counts show.

Keeping omicron at bay won’t be an easy task, but using a consistent, layered approach is the best way to go, experts say.

This means requirements for masks and vaccines, eliminating high-risk activities like eating or drinking, improving ventilation and limiting crowds. Liao said organizations should recognize the risk of large crowds.

“Because of the omicron, there is a non-zero risk,” he said.

Politics, Liao added, are equal to science and values. Being consistent and transparent with the community about expectations and recognizing the risks is the best way to take a thoughtful approach.


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