Spike in flu deaths among cities with pro sports teams may spell trouble for COVID-19


Economics prof issues dire warning over COVID-19: ‘Opening pro sports for fans is probably a terrible idea, in terms of public health. You could be putting the virus right into your mouth.’


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As professional sports teams gear up to get back on the court (or field, ice, etc), a new piece of research comes with a sobering warning for sports executives and fans alike. The study by West Virginia University researchers finds that cities with major sports teams see far more flu deaths than cities without pro sports.

Considering the fact that COVID-19 is far more contagious and deadlier than the flu, the study’s authors say it isn’t time yet for fans to start attending sporting events.

“Opening pro sports games to fans is probably a terrible idea, in terms of public health,” says study co-author and WVU Economics Professor Brad Humphreys in a release. “You’re right on top of people and everybody’s yelling, screaming, high-fiving and hugging. And you’ve got people eating and drinking. You could be putting the virus right into your mouth. The bottom line is we need to be very careful if we’re considering opening up games to the fans.”

How flu deaths could signal more COVID-19 deaths

The research team analyzed a large dataset provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spanning 1962-2016. That investigation revealed that flu deaths increase in U.S. cities with major sports teams by anywhere from 5-24% during regular season play annually. These statistics included the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. For what it’s worth, the NHL was linked to the most flu fatalities.

Almost unbelievably, across that entire 54 year period, whenever a city brought in a new pro sports team to an area, that region saw a noticeable increase in flu deaths.

“We found data that reported flu mortality by city by week dating back to the 1960s. We decided the best experiment was to try to look at what happened when a city got a new pro sports team compared to cities that didn’t. As it turned out, after a new professional sports team came into a city, that flu season and every flu season afterward had more people dying of the flu,” Humphreys says. “It isn’t one or two people dying. This is closer to 30 or 40 additional flu deaths over the course of flu season. When you blow it up to a virus that’s more fatal like COVID-19, we could be talking about hundreds of additional deaths because of these games.”

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Similarly, researchers also noted a decline in flu deaths during season stoppages. For example, many cities reported fewer flu deaths during the 2011 NBA lockout.

‘Super-spreader’ events

The team at WVU were motivated to perform this research after hearing about an Italian soccer game earlier this year that probably led to a big surge in COVID-19 cases in the southern European country. When that game occurred on February 19th, Italy only had three confirmed COVID-19 infections. A mere two weeks later there were close to 1,000 confirmed cases in just the region where the game was played.

“At the time, they had the highest death rate anywhere in the world,” Humphreys explains. “That game served as a super-spreader event.”

None of the four major North American sports leagues are planning on allowing fans to attend games anytime soon. The NHL and NBA, however, are already getting ready to start playing games again this summer in empty arenas. The Texas Motor Speedway plans to allow fans to return at 50% capacity for a NASCAR race in July.

‘Bringing fans back would be huge mistake’

Researchers hope their work helps league officials make more informed decisions regarding fan safety moving forward.

Of course, these results don’t only apply to sporting events; COVID-19 can potentially spread just as quickly at concerts, parties, or any other large gathering of people.

“You’ll have some people say, ‘Oh, but everybody can wear a mask,’” Humphreys comments. “But you’ve seen how people are complying with that, right? And if these arenas are at full capacity, social distancing isn’t happening.”

“Our results reveal that bringing fans back to games would be a huge mistake,” he concludes. “Imagine someone going to a game and sitting in the stands and then they go see grandma at the nursing home. Let’s wait til we have a vaccine or reach herd immunity.”

The study is published in SSRN.

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