Illustration by Sam Papavasiliou

Sports Bubbling for controlling Coronavirus

Science behind social bubbling casts doubt on the security behind implemented safety practices
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Science behind social bubbling casts doubt on the security behind implemented safety practices

How many Superbowl parties have you been to? Drunk bodies stacked on top of each other. Frantic embraces. Hollering and crying. Sports, both play and spectation, is all about physical expression. And each one of those mass expression events carries the potential for an outbreak of COVID-19.

According to the CDC, the virus is more likely to spread through close contact than through airborne transmission. Packing tightly into bars, gathering in stadiums, cheering and hugging are all likely to spread COVID-19. Early in the year, scientists linked a soccer game in Italy to a massive outbreak, with the true toll difficult to track.

The danger doesn’t just come from the stadium, but also all the orbiting viewing locations. Simply social bubbling by quarantining the team, coaches, staff and media doesn’t cut it when major transmission events may happen as a result of independent viewings of sports broadcasts in addition to attendance of official events.

Transmission through close contact may be more likely than airborne transmission. Contact sports may be more dangerous than sports with significant distance between players. Baseball has faced bumps in the road, with an outbreak in the Miami Marlins, but football requires more contact, and therefore more risk. The NFL recently suffered its first major outbreak in the Tennessee Titans, signaling a failure of their non-bubble model

Realistically, models of disease spread must consider a wide range of variables. Changing numbers of susceptible individuals, changing likelihood that a susceptible person will encounter a sick person, increasing numbers of recovered individuals, the implementation of safety measures, and frequency of social gatherings like sporting events are all variables that matter when mapping disease transmission. But simple exponential growth is the basic reason why uncontrolled disease can overwhelm local healthcare at the beginning of an outbreak.

One person has it, they give it to two people in a day. Those people give it to two more people each then next day. That’s four new people who can give it to two more people each. That’s eight new people and in a few weeks many more have it. It doesn’t realistically work that way on a large scale due to a wide range of important factors, but it’s a useful model for how outbreaks can begin in previously uninfected communities.

Now say one person on a football the team contracts COVID-19. Then that one person gives it to 14 people through close physical contact. So, 15 people have it. They go out into the community and give it to 2 people each in a day. Our starting number is higher, so the growth is faster. Those 15 give it to 30 people, those 30 give it to 60, those 60 give it to 120, and so on.

This clear danger is just one reason that hundreds of college teams have been cut due to the pandemic. These cuts impact athletes, athletic programs, schools and local economies. Specifically, Football often funds the rest of a school’s athletic program. If it goes, so might every other sport. Sports matter on a local level, not just as a national industry.

That’s where the bubble solution comes in. The team and everyone who supports them cuts themselves off from the rest of a community. No one leaves, everyone gets tested constantly. It’s a bubble.

In practice, it’s difficult. That’s hundreds of people quarantining together, with further levels of quarantine within the bubble. The people with the most contact, such as the players and coaches, must stay away from the other staff as much as possible, effectively forming bubbles within bubbles. Then the staff with the most contact to the players stays away from the staff undergoing the least risk.

All of those bubbles on the edge of popping, delicate planning, and vigilant testing for only a chance to keep the team safe. There are severe consequences if all those measures fail. And none of those intense measures accounts for what happens outside. It can’t account for people huddling around their TV, packing into bars, or embracing when victory is declared.

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