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Seasonal flu deaths are higher in U.S. cities with pro sports teams

A new study led by West Virginia University has found that U.S. cities with pro sports have more seasonal deaths from the flu each year. Based on the findings, sports leagues should reconsider opening back up to the public during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The research was focused on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1962 and 2016.

The study showed that flu deaths increased by as much as 24 percent during the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB seasons. The largest spike in seasonal flu deaths was associated with NHL games.

COVID-19 is believed to be even more contagious and deadlier than the flu. The researchers said that until a vaccine is available or herd immunity exists, the fans should not be coming back to the games.

“Opening pro sports games to fans is probably a terrible idea, in terms of public health,” said study co-author Professor Brad Humphreys. “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.”

The experts looked at cities that introduced a new professional sports franchise during the 54-year study period. They found that new teams led to an increase in flu mortality, regardless of the sport.

“We found data that reported flu mortality by city by week dating back to the 1960s,” said Professor Humphreys. “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.

“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.”

During suspensed seasons, the data showed a decline in flu deaths. For example, U.S. cities reported fewer flu deaths during the 2011 NBA lockout and the 1982 NFL strike.

The research was initiated in March as the NBA and other organizations called off games due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Professor Humphreys was further motivated to investigate after learning about a spike in COVID-19 following a soccer game in Italy.

On February 19, more than 40,000 residents of Bergamo traveled to nearby Milan to see their home team Atalanta compete with Spain’s Valencia. Before the soccer match,  there were only three confirmed COVID-19 cases in Italy. Two weeks later, that number jumped to almost 1,000 in Bergamo alone.

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

Both the NBA and NHL are planning to resume their seasons this summer without fans in attendance. As part of an ongoing study from the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, NBA players will have the option of wearing an Oura smart ring that detects early signs of COVID-19.

The experts hope their findings will not only help inform decisions about reopening sporrs, but will also deter mass gatherings in general such as concerts, conferences, and conventions.

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

A COVID-19 model that was formerly used by the White House projects that more than 200,000 American could die from the virus by October. As of today, 119,000 people have died in the United States.

“Our results reveal that bringing fans back to games would be a huge mistake,” said Professor Humphreys. “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 research was presented at the ROSES  seminar hosted by the University of Reading.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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