According to research published Friday in JAMA Network Open, playing collegiate football games did not contribute to coronavirus transmission among players in the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference last year, even with testing and other mitigation measures in place.

It wasn’t obvious if there would be a college football season at various stages throughout the outbreak. Football players seemed to be breaking all of the pandemic safety guidelines about maintaining a safe distance from one another. While players play, they don’t protect their faces, don’t wash their hands before tinkering with their mouthguards or handling a common item like the football, yell when they’re close together, and pile on each other when tackling.

Nonetheless, with mitigation measures in place, college football groups believed they could play safely, even in areas of the nation where transmission rates were high and before vaccines were available. And, according to the newest research, they were correct.

Between September 26 and December 19, 2020, researchers from Texas A&M University followed approximately 1,200 SEC football players for the study. The players were given wearable sensors to detect how much close contact they had throughout the game, as well as PCR Covid-19 testing three times a week during the season. There were rigorous isolation and quarantine procedures in place if any players or coaches tested positive.

The players had 109,762 opposing-player contacts in total during 64 regular-season games, according to the report. Only 18 players tested positive for Covid-19 within 48 hours of playing a game out of the 138 players the research tracked throughout the season. That shows that rigorous testing, as well as tight isolation and quarantine procedures, kept the bulk of ill players off the field.

Within 48 hours of the game, none of the players who came into touch with the 18 who had Covid-19 became ill with Covid-19 as a result of that game interaction. Annika Dixon, one of the study’s authors, said the findings did not surprise her.

Dixon, a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M School of Public Health, stated, “We assumed that play was quite safe because we knew that the SEC was pursuing various different efforts to minimize the spread of Covid-19.”

There were a few more reasons that may have kept the players safe, in addition to routine testing and quarantine and isolation methods.

Despite the fact that football is a high-contact sport, the exchanges between players were rapid. According to sensor data, most contacts lasted less than 26 seconds. Only 13 player-to-player contacts matched the threshold of “close contact exposure” as specified by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means the player was within 6 feet of another for more than 15 minutes. None of the 13 contacts resulted in anybody being ill.

It was also important that the game be played outdoors. According to the CDC, Covid-19 spreads far more quickly indoors, especially in crowded and poorly ventilated areas. Previous research has shown that the probability of Covid-19 transmission outdoors is 18 times lower than indoors. Other outdoor sports, like rugby, have also shown that there is no transmission during a match.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, stated, “Studies like these demonstrate we should be getting people outdoors for activities during a pandemic, full stop.” Gandhi was not engaged in the research, but he believes it has broader implications since it shows that brief contacts between persons outdoors do not spread the virus.

“Remember the period during the pandemic when people would walk by one other outdoors even with masks on and tense up because they were afraid they’d spread the virus?” she asked. “Look at a research like this and you’ll realize why this doesn’t happen.”

According to Gandhi, research like this might have repercussions for places like California, where students are still required to wear masks outdoors during the break. According to her, the research suggests that this isn’t essential. “These are brief periods of exposure, similar to what these football players experienced outdoors,” Gandhi said.

There are a few flaws in the research. It was carried out before the more infectious Delta variation became widespread. It was also carried out prior to the widespread availability of immunizations. Both of these variables might have influenced the number of persons who contracted Covid-19.

In the study’s accompanying editorial, Dr. Daniel Morgan of the VA Maryland Health Care System noted, “Studies like these reveal that many behaviors that look harmful are really on a continuum between safe and not safe.”

The research also suggests that activities may continue in a pandemic if properly managed, according to Dixon.

“The findings of this research demonstrate the need of implementing preventive and mitigation techniques,” Dixon added. “It also demonstrates that when we follow such procedure, we can safely participate in sports.”

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