The Tampa Bay region will likely see a spike in coronavirus cases linked to Super Bowl 55 and its related celebrations as soon as this weekend, local health experts said, pointing to large groups of maskless fans that gathered this week.
They said they became worried while watching festivities like Tampa’s waterfront boat parade Wednesday, where thousands came together to celebrate the Buccaneers’ first NFL championship since 2003. Worse than that, one said, were the crammed bars and streets in Ybor and SoHo the night of the game, where hundreds partied without masks.
The events were reminiscent of the parade that followed the Lightning’s Stanley Cup win in September, which also drew maskless, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and is believed by experts to have accounted for a slight uptick in local COVID-19 infections.
The Bucs, however, drew many more people visiting from far and wide — and celebrations were bigger and spread out over a longer period of time, giving the virus more opportunity to attack.
Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, called the parade a “potential super spreader event,” noting that many in attendance were young. Their age makes them more likely to be asymptomatic if they contract the coronavirus and therefore more likely to spread the virus unknowingly, he said.
The Tampa Bay region added 1,721 cases of the virus and 53 deaths on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the B.1.1.7 variant, a more aggressive strain of the virus, is taking hold in the state, with nearly 350 reported cases as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And the number of variant cases reported so far is a fraction of what’s actually out there. Researchers have located relatively few cases because the process of examining a virus for mutations is expensive and time-consuming, according to a Miami Herald report this week.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor defended the parade Thursday, noting it was held outside, where it’s less likely but still possible for the virus to spread. Plus, masks were required, she said, though no citations were issued for the many who didn’t wear them.
“People like to think, well, it’s outside, so it’s okay. But that’s not true,” said Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida and an assistant dean at the College of Public Health.
“You can still get COVID-19 outside,” she said. “It lowers the risk a little bit, but when you get people that close together, it mitigates that lower risk. … You’re taking away some of the benefit of being outside.”
The day of the Lightning parade, Sept. 28, Hillsborough County’s positivity rate, or the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive, was below 5 percent. It grew steadily in the following days, reaching 7.7 percent just before Thanksgiving, Wolfson said. In that same period, the number of new cases reported each day in Hillsborough grew from 176 to 332.
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Though he can’t say exactly how many of those extra cases were linked to the Lightning parade, Wolfson is sure the event factored into the increase. And the repercussions of the Super Bowl will be worse, he contends.
“The Lightning attracted lots of people on the riverfront for one night, and that’s it, and nearly all were local,” Wolfson said. The Super Bowl “affected far more people over a larger area ... over a longer period of time.”
Michael Wiese, head of epidemiology at the Hillsborough County health department told reporters this week that his team is working hard to track coronavirus cases linked to Super Bowl events, reaching out to counterparts in other counties and states for help.
He noted that the game was the region’s biggest gathering since the start of the pandemic, and acknowledged that not everyone who celebrated did so safely. That created the “right scenario” for spread.
“We try to encourage social distancing, mask wearing, and those ... were not the images that we saw with some of that Super Bowl coverage,” he said. “It makes me cringe a little as a public health professional, knowing that people are kind of not following those recommendations.”
Those who participated in Super Bowl events — including those who wore masks and took other precautions — should be cognizant about any symptoms they experience in the coming days, even if they are minor, experts said. It’s also not a bad idea to be tested.
“If you have a runny nose, if you have a slight cough you think is allergies, if there are any symptoms at all, I would have a high suspicion of COVID,” said Prins, the University of Florida epidemiologist.
The full impact of the Super Bowl on coronavirus cases won’t be known until people start testing positive and showing up at hospitals, said Michael Teng, a virologist at the University of South Florida. The term super-spreader is sort of nebulous, but he thinks Tampa’s parade would qualify.
“Any spread above baseline could be considered a spreader event,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen.”
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