Tampa’s Super Bowl was not a coronavirus super spreader, officials say

Just 57 cases have been linked to the big game. But more spread likely happened at unofficial events, experts say.
Fans are seen along Tampa's Riverwalk as Tampa Bay Buccaneers players glide by during a boat parade Feb. 10 after the Bucs defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
Fans are seen along Tampa's Riverwalk as Tampa Bay Buccaneers players glide by during a boat parade Feb. 10 after the Bucs defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 3, 2021|Updated March 3, 2021

Tampa’s Super Bowl was not the coronavirus super spreader event that many predicted, Hillsborough County health officials said Wednesday.

Fifty-three COVID-19 cases statewide were found to be associated with official Super Bowl events, Michael Wiese, chief epidemiologist at the county health department, said in a virtual interview.

Four more were found outside the state, in Illinois, Michigan, Hawaii and North Carolina, according to a coronavirus surveillance report by the health department.

Hillsborough also saw a slight uptick in its positivity rate, or the percentage of people testing positive for the virus, in the weeks following the Super Bowl, Wiese said. During the department’s Super Bowl surveillance period, which ran from Jan. 22 to Feb. 23, Hillsborough’s rate was 7.9 percent compared to the statewide rate of 7.3 percent.

He credited that to spread at unofficial events related to the big game, like family gatherings, house parties and packed bars and restaurants.

“The true number of COVID cases related to this community-wide event is likely much higher,” the report said. “Pictures and videos from the community gatherings and post-game celebrations show significant and large crowds that further support this conclusion.”

Related: Expect a coronavirus spike from Tampa's Super Bowl, experts say

Wiese cautioned that there are some barriers to consider about the department’s tracking of cases related to the Super Bowl, like its ability to get in touch with people, and their willingness to share information about their activities.

“Right around half the people that we speak to are open and provide good information to us,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are a large percentage of people that don’t want to participate and don’t want to share their personal information with us.”

The department found that 21 of the people who tested positive most likely attended official Super Bowl festivities during their potential infectious period. Twenty-five are thought to have been exposed at the events, the report said. Twenty-eight reported not having participated any group settings other than the Super Bowl and related activities, while 17 said they had.

Hillsborough put out a call for help to other health departments nationwide, including those in Florida’s 66 other counties, asking them for information on any cases thought to be linked to the Super Bowl.

The four non-Florida residents known to have tested positive attended official Super Bowl events, with three attending the game itself, the health department found. Two of those three were in their mid-50s and traveled to Tampa having already contracted COVID-19.

Rob Higgins, head of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee, spoke alongside Wiese. He said that health and safety “was the driving factor of every decision” about the game and surrounding events, which drew some of the largest crowds in the country since the start of the pandemic.

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A total of 280,000 people took part in official Super Bowl events, he said. That included 24,835 fans and 12,000 event staff and members of the media at the game, as well as more than 240,000 people who attended the Super Bowl Experience in downtown Tampa.

Higgins noted that events originally planned for indoors were moved outside or made virtual, and said that outdoor events were spaced out and “had strong health and safety measures.”

“Our collective job was to work together to mitigate risk, and the results shared today show that’s what happened,” he said. “The Super Bowl was not a super spreader.”

Local health experts had predicted a spike in cases related to the Super Bowl after seeing photos of fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder at events across Tampa Bay. They included Michael Teng, an immunologist at the University of South Florida, who said the numbers are “not nearly as troublesome” as he feared.

Part of the reason, he said, is that cases were already on the decline during Super Bowl events, falling from the spikes in December and early January that were caused by the holidays.

He noted, too, that case numbers are fully dependent on people going to get tested, and that that’s less likely to happen among people often those in younger age groups who are infected and contagious but don’t experience symptoms.

Jay Wolfson, a public health expert at USF who also predicted a spike from Super Bowl events, said Wednesday that he’s pleased with the health department’s report. But he cautioned that cases caused by community spread can take five weeks or longer to show up in testing. And, like Teng, he noted that some who are sick are reluctant to get tests or share their information with contact tracers.

Wolfson compared large gatherings during a pandemic to drunken driving: Just as drinking increases the chance of an automobile accident, gathering increases the chance of spreading disease, he said.

“If you don’t get in an accident, you can’t say, ‘Well, I can drive drunk then,’” he said. “Let’s look at the bright side, but let’s not forget that there’s a virus out there.”

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