Stadium superspreading fears persist as baseball moves on

Infectious disease expert says ingredients are there, virus is too

BOSTON — Like many Americans, infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner watches football on the weekends. But unlike most, he mainly focuses his attention on the stands, not the field.

“I haven’t seen anybody in the stands wear a mask, yet,” Schaffner said. “Yeah. That bothers me.”

Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, is bothered by the possibility that stadium sports events could become super-spreader events this fall.

“The virus is there among them,” he said. “And Delta can spread even outdoors.”

The problem with identifying a ‘super-spreader’ event at a stadium is that cases would likely occur among strangers, making it difficult to establish a common source, date and time of infection.

Thus far, it doesn’t appear there have been any stadium super-spreader events in recent months, but the ingredients for such an occurrence would seem to be there. Not only are most fans attending games mask-less, but capacity limits are gone.  And most stadiums do not restrict seating to low-risk fans.

In fact, in the NFL, only four teams have any sort of vaccine and/or testing mandate aimed at fans: the Buffalo Bills, the New Orleans Saints, the Las Vegas Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks.

Related: Bogaerts, Verdugo lead Red Sox to victory in AL Wild Card Game, set up date with Rays

Last August, a study published in JAMA Network Open concluded college and pro football seasons could safely proceed this fall. However, seemingly lost in the translation of the study were its finer points.

First, it focused on a football season with limited in-person attendance. Second, it assumed fans would be masked. And finally, it came to its conclusions last May, well before the Delta variant surged in the U.S.

The New England Patriots ask the unvaccinated to wear masks, but vaccination status is not checked. And there are no limits on capacity at Gillette Stadium.

At Fenway, the City of Boston requires masks in public areas, such as restrooms and the food concession concourse. But in the stands, which can be packed, the Red Sox ‘encourage’ those who are unvaccinated to wear masks.

Wednesday morning, the Red Sox left for Tampa Bay to compete in the American League Divisional Series. Like the Red Sox, the Rays do not require fans to be vaccinated to attend games. However, because Tropicana Field is enclosed, masks are mandatory for the unvaccinated, though it does not appear vaccination status will be checked.

Karen Russell, a vaccinated Red Sox fan who tried to score a seat for Tuesday night’s Wild Card game, feels outdoor events are probably safe. Still, the large crowd did give her pause.

“I probably would have worn a mask being around all those people,” she said.

On the other hand, Hanna Mancuso, visiting from Loveland, Texas, would not have worn a mask had she gone to the game.

“I’m unvaccinated,” she said. “And we do natural immunity here. We’re not worried about it. We’re not going to stop living our life. We’re going to go out in the fresh air and enjoy our family.”

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