Public health experts weigh risks as cases spike
The Big Ten has reversed its decision to postpone football for the fall at the same time cases of COVID-19 have spiked in communities where the conference’s 14 schools are located.
The rate for confirmed positive cases has increased by 60% in the past three weeks, to 25.5 confirmed positive cases per 100,000 residents from 15.9 confirmed positive cases per 100,000 residents, according to data provided by Emory University.
“It’s definitely a bad situation,’’ said Pooja Naik, a master of public health candidate at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, who conducted the data analysis for USA TODAY.
Nine of the 14 counties with Big Ten schools showed higher infection rates during the past week, including Indiana and Michigan State, both up 101%, and Penn State 92%. The Hoosiers’ Monroe County, Indiana, topped all Big Ten counties with 63.2 cases per 100,000 – an infection rate in the Power Five that’s second only to Virginia Tech’s Montgomery County.
Colleen Kraft, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, said it’s “really hard’’ to see a strategy for the Big Ten to move forward with an eight-game season starting Oct. 24 because of the high case rate on college campuses.
“I think there’s a movement that’s probably happened in the last couple of weeks toward kind of living with COVID, but it’s going to be concerning given that other regional (athletic) conferences have not been very successful in keeping their football going,’’ she said. (Charlotte announced Thursday its game against North Carolina on Saturday had been canceled due to a depleted roster. Charlotte didn’t have enough offensive linemen available to play because of contact tracing after three positive cases on the team.)
Kraft, a member of the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel, said it became clear that protocols could provide only limited protection for the players.
“It doesn’t apply to what they do in the evening or what they do on their own time,’’ Kraft said. “And those are the times that are actually the risky times. So while we’ve mitigated the risk from sports itself, we can’t completely mitigate it from coming in from outside of sports.
“I think not having behavior change on campus potentially is going to cause a lot of trouble, even if we can be safe during sports.’’
But Jay Wolfson, distinguished service professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said advances in testing and public sentiment justify the Big Ten’s decision to play. Football is being played at South Florida.
“Some of us in public health or medicine are saying it’s dangerous, everybody should be cordoned off, put a bubble around everything,” Wolfson said. “That’s fanciful and it’s ivory tower (expletive). The reality is people in this country are ready to get back.
“What they’re going to have to realize, though, is it’s going to have to be carefully controlled and paced, and if and when there are blips, you stop and you have to be able to stop.’’
Fans will not be allowed to attend Big Ten games, and Wolfson said that will help mitigate community spread of COVID-19. He also pointed to the success the NBA and NHL have had in containing the transmission of COVID-19.
“The risks are still there,’’ Wolfson said. “But the facts have changed. We’ve got some new tools. We’ve learned some new lessons. We’ve looked at what other places have done, what other industries have done and maybe this is a time to say, ‘OK, there’s this compelling psychosocial need to move forward and demonstrate that we’re not being beaten by this thing and sports in many respects are the epitome of our society saying, ‘We can do this.’ ’’
Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said how the Big Ten season fares will depend on infrastructure.
“It’s not a question of if you support or don’t support the decision,’’ said Adalja, a member of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel. “Do you have the infrastructure to deal with the consequences of that decision? Do you have the ability to test people? Do you have the ability to sort of insulate what’s going on from that kind of interaction from the rest of the community in a way that doesn’t increase the overall risk to an intolerable degree?
“And much of what had gone on earlier when we were thinking about football, do colleges have the resources to be able to do enough testing to be able to minimize the risk? And there are new technologies that are coming to bear which may have some influence, and we have seen the ways that some of the professional sports leagues have been able to handle sports and that helps inform that decision.’’
The Big Ten has said it plans to test players daily with antigen tests, and Adalja and Kraft indicated antigen tests could be used reliably.
“There is emerging evidence that antigens tests do preform adequately at distinguishing who is contagious versus who is not,’’ Adalja said. “There is a generalized push to use antigen tests much more strategically to be able to answer that question, whether an asymptomatic individual is or is not contagious.’’
COVID-19 cases in ACC counties
COVID-19 cases in Big 12 counties
COVID-19 cases in Big Ten counties
COVID-19 cases in Pac-12 counties
COVID-19 cases in SEC counties