For many people longing for a return to normalcy, the College World Series will be a powerful exclamation that Omaha is roaring back after 16 months in a pandemic.
But there’s one big problem: The pandemic is not over.
Public health experts and a researcher in fan safety warn of the risk of COVID-19 spread at a full-attendance CWS even as COVID conditions are improving.
The good news for fans: Local cases are down, vaccinations are up and providing great protection, and the series is an outdoor event. By all accounts, vaccinated fans are in great shape to witness the series’ big return.
The concerns: Cases are still spreading, troublesome virus variants are rising and not even half the host county’s total population is fully vaccinated. The outdoor ballpark will have fans sitting shoulder to shoulder, screaming and yelling and standing in lines as they come and go from TD Ameritrade Park, get concessions, walk the concourse and go to the bathroom.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the infectious diseases division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said he sees some reason for optimism but also expects some upswing in COVID cases resulting from the series. But with the rates of vaccination and natural immunity from people’s previous infections, Rupp said he doesn’t think cases will surge.
Rupp said the strong message should be that being fully vaccinated is part of the admission price to attend large events again.
“If you’re unvaccinated, I would invite you to stay home and not attend the event all all,” he said, “because you’re part of the problem and you can either contract the illness or you can unwittingly spread it.”
With potentially 24,000 fans attending as many as 17 games, the series will be — by far — Omaha and Nebraska’s largest gatherings since the pandemic started.
No public health measures will be required to guard against COVID spread. But series organizers have been consulting with the Douglas County Health Department on the operations, and a senior epidemiologist with the department says she is impressed with the plans.
Even so, the department has stepped up its surveillance in case out-of-state visitors start testing positive.
The CWS can get some encouragement from Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers, who regularly draw 20,000-plus fans to Globe Life Field in Arlington and until recently were the only big league team to allow full attendance. Although President Joe Biden and the county health director rebuked the move, cases in the ballpark’s county are down months into the season.
For Omaha’s signature event, the greatest risk surrounds unvaccinated fans. Ballpark visitors who aren’t vaccinated against COVID are encouraged to wear a mask — although that’s merely a suggestion and will go unchecked. Based on local vaccination rates, there’s potential for thousands of fans to be unvaccinated and unmasked.
Dr. Bob Rauner, president of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln and a leading analyst of Nebraska’s COVID trends throughout the pandemic, said the CWS will be an uncontrolled experiment on COVID spread, with a large range of uncertainty about how it will turn out.
But having an idea of the variables, Rauner estimated the potential impact.
At the low end, just 10 infected fans in a single game’s crowd of 20,000 could lead to more than 30 new cases. At the high end, the new cases from one game could surpass 200, according to his analysis.
Currently, Douglas County is seeing about a dozen new cases per day.
One potential compounding factor: if fans get infected at early games then attend other games later in the series. At worst, Rauner estimated that new COVID cases could reach into the hundreds or thousands.
Rauner said adding any basic public health protection, such as testing or masks, would make a big difference in minimizing COVID spread.
In Major League Baseball, some teams offer specially designated sections for fully vaccinated fans.
“It’s when you do nothing that your problem comes,” Rauner said.
Following the 2020-21 NFL season, researchers studying the impact of the football crowds on case levels found an increase in the host counties and surrounding areas. One study found case spikes particularly following games with crowds over 20,000, and researchers wrote that the return to sporting events should be handled “with extreme caution.”
Since the NFL season, many of the COVID variables have improved — often dramatically.
But Justin Kurland, a co-author on the NFL study and director of research with the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi, said tremendous uncertainty remains about the impact of high-attendance sporting events.
Kurland said it doesn’t make sense to hold large gatherings without an end to the pandemic.
“There’s a dangerous game that’s being played in the context of these larger events, in my estimation,” he said.
Diana Cervantes, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Texas, said the impact of the Texas Rangers games has been minor, and now the ballgames are being played as social activities in Texas increase in general.
Following the Rangers’ lead, 14 other Major League teams have moved to allow full attendance, according to The Athletic sports news website.
Asked if it’s appropriate to have higher attendance at ballgames, Cervantes said it is.
For people who aren’t vaccinated, Cervantes cautioned that a large stadium crowd is a big risk for those fans and others. But she said the CWS is a big deal, and can be held safely for vaccinated fans.
Based on the success of COVID vaccines and the drop in cases, she said, “right now we can enjoy these things like baseball.”
Kristyna Engdahl, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority that runs TD Ameritrade Park, said the ballpark will apply some lessons MECA has learned in the pandemic, such as cash-free concession sales and game tickets on a mobile device.
Fans also are asked to apply common sense: If you’re not feeling well, don’t come to a game.
Also this series, general admission ticketing is out, in favor of reserved seating throughout the stadium. That will dispense with one big line. Engdahl said standing room only views won’t be allowed on the concourse.
Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist with the Douglas County Health Department, said she has been impressed with the plans for the series, including a comprehensive testing program for teams and a player code of conduct to minimize high-risk contact with the public.
O’Keefe said fans can expect to see signs promoting hand washing and mask wearing.
Outside the stadium, the Health Department even will offer its mobile vaccine clinic Saturday and Sunday with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
O’Keefe said this year’s series is part of a difficult transition back to the way things were before COVID-19.