Uncomfortable Realities: Sports and The Flu

The pandemic has forced us to think about whole lot of things, including those beyond the current crisis. COVID has made us keenly aware of what we already knew: diseases and illnesses spread in close and closed quarters. One conversation in my household has revolved around the question of general mask use, namely: why don’t we use these things in non-pandemic times? I feel like I’ll never get on a flight without a mask again and am wondering if we should all mask up in public during the flu season? It seems extreme, but catching the flu sucks.

Speaking of the flu, I just came across a compelling new research paper, whose title says it all: “Professional Sporting Events Increase Seasonal Influenza Mortality in US Cities.” (note that the article is a “pre-print” meaning it hasn’t been subjected to full review yet…but I don’t see anything to question it’s veracity.) Here’s the full abstract, by Cardazzi, et. al.:

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down sporting events worldwide. Local policy makers and league officials face important decisions about restarting play, especially in professional leagues that draw large numbers of spectators to games. We analyze the impact of professional sporting events on local seasonal influenza mortality to develop evidence that will help inform sports league reopening policy decisions. Results from a difference-in-differences model applied to data from a sample of US cities that gained new professional sports teams over the period 1962-2016 show that the presence of games in these cities increased local influenza mortality by between 4% and 24%, depending on sport, relative to cities with no professional sports teams and relative to mortality in those cities before a new team arrived. Influenza mortality fell in cities with teams in some years when work stoppages occurred in sports leagues. Sports league reopening policies should take into account the role played by sporting events in increasing local seasonal flu mortality.

Full article here, you may need institutional access.

Implications abound for live sports (and live events in general): do we need permanent screening and temperature checks? (yes these are imperfect, but better than nothing) Will some fans never return to the stands? With the quality of at-home viewing and the cost of live attendance, it feels like our new awareness of health, safety, and our own mortality will render the couch more appealing than the grandstand.

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