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Researchers Create Tracker for Football-Related Coronavirus Spread

Massachusetts General Hospital is a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston's West End.
Massachusetts General Hospital is a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston's West End. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez

Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute’s COVID-19 Simulator website have designed a new tool that focuses on a particular potential superspreader event: football games.

The new tool, called the COVID-19 Football Tracker, arose from a collaboration among Harvard Medical School, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Boston Medical Center. The feature is an extension of the Institute’s existing COVID-19 Outbreak Detection Tool, which visualizes the effects of different COVID-19 prevention measures. The COVID-19 Football Tracker will specifically allow policymakers, team managers, and citizens to analyze the effects of resuming in-person football games.

Asmae Toumi, a data analyst at the MGH Institute for Technology Assessment, said that the football tracker is aimed at better informing team managers and the public about whether it is safe to host and attend games.

“We've noticed that the decision making with regards to in-person attendance seemed pretty arbitrary and random. This was a few weeks back, but team executives would say, ‘Okay, by the end of October, we'll open up our stadiums to fans.’ Well, [how] was that decision made, on what kind of evidence?” Toumi said, “Can we help them make better decisions?”

The COVID-19 Football Tracker uses an AI-approach to overlay football games and data from multiple sources to estimate how quickly COVID-19 is spreading. The tool uses a wide variety of factors to determine the rate of spread in counties from football stadiums; these include facemask mandates, the number of tests performed, and population density, among others.

The tool also allows scientists to track the rate of COVID-19 spread at NCAA and NFL games 0n the county level. Toumi explained that there is an increased coronavirus spread with the NFL and NCAA football teams, as compared to NBA and NHL teams, because the former are not playing in bubbles throughout the season.

According to Jagpreet Chhatwal, principal investigator of the COVID-19 Simulator Website and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, football games can also accelerate the spread of COVID-19 because fans often travel from neighboring counties to attend them.

“By identifying counties where cases are rising, policymakers could act early (e.g., closing of restaurants and schools) or [the] NCAA and NFL [could] cancel in-person attendance in football games to slow down the spread and minimize damage,” Chhatwal wrote in an emailed statement.

The information the COVID-19 Football Tracker gleans is also publicly available for those who want to attend games.

“The football tracker tool will be specifically designed for team executives and for league officials, but also for you as a fan, thinking of attending one of these games,” said Toumi. “You might want to view how badly or how well your county may be doing, and hopefully, that will factor into your decision on whether you think it is safe for you to be there.”

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FootballResearchHarvard Medical SchoolCoronavirus