What’s an octogenarian to do when careless youth pay him no heed?
Anthony Fauci never assented to COVID research energized by senior adolescents with hormones raging and frontal lobes still developing — yes, college kids, and no small number of them having topped up blood-alcohol levels by game time. Yet the college football season is well under way and producing “real-world data” to help determine whether it’s finally time to obsess less about virions and more about, say, Big 10 rankings.
“I think it’s really unfortunate,” Dr Fauci has remarked, taking his cue from a CNBC host who noted crowded stadiums and fed him this prompt: “I thought COVID is about to have a feast. What do you think?”
It must be said this novel type of clinical trial isn’t randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled. It’s not controlled in the least. What it is, though, is huge.
Let’s look at one: Penn State vs Auburn, played in the “Happy Valley” of Pennsylvania which is home to the Nittany Lions. Home fans arrived in uniform with white shirts, white sweaters, white body-paint — a “White Out” across a stadium not exactly built for social distancing (capacity: 106,572). I have nephews — young and trim alums — who must contort themselves while fitting into spaces tighter than the cheap seats on a puddle-jumper airline.
Masks were “recommended” in the stands. Got that? Then Google the highlights and listen. You won’t have to wait for the moment when Penn State’s tight-end tucked in a short pass and the 250 pounds of him rumbled to Auburn’s three-yard line. Through all four quarters it was roaring mask-free pandemonium, and there’s no saying what continued into the post-game hours of the night. (Please, please explain why school children are still being mask-gagged on the pretext of shielding their elders.)
However much Dr Fauci may tsk-tsk over unmuffled exuberance, there is no locking it down now. If on any Saturday the college teams with the 10 largest stadiums are playing at home, that day alone yields a million trial subjects. Who is “America’s doctor?” The student sections might flub the answer.
As for trial-entry criteria at Penn State, students must get vaxxed or pass weekly COVID tests to enroll at the university. But no sort of COVID passport is required of others entering the stadium, and though the kids are the more uproarious, those others are the majority. Students get but 21,000 tickets for any one game.
Data? According to the university, seven-day-average infectivity rates among students have fallen consistently from 1 percent on the day of the Auburn game to 0.2 percent currently. Students in quarantine, either because they show COVID symptoms or fall within a contact-tracing chain, have dropped from 34 to 4, this in a home-campus population of 46,000. These trends hold for the entire season to date. (The Auburn game was played on September 18; there have been home games before and since then.)
What about the immediately surrounding area and beyond? According to the New York Times COVID tracker, the county surrounding the university (Centre County, population of 162,000, including Penn State students) infections have fluctuated but trended moderately downward through the season. Weekly hospitalization averages have bumped along a plateau, ranging from 39 to 43. The chief hospital in the region, Mount Nittany Medical Center, had 36 COVID patients (28 not vaccinated, eight fully vaccinated) as of October 20. There have been nine deaths in the county. (Penn State is aware of one student death attributed to COVID in July 2020 and another in August 2021; both students contracted the disease and were treated away from campus.) The Pennsylvania Health Department says it hasn’t detected COVID outbreaks anywhere in the state which might be related to Penn State games or other big sporting events.
OK, these are only interim results, another mixed bag of COVID stats likely to dupe anybody reading too much into them. At this stage of the experiment, one conclusion alone is totally safe from challenge: Penn State 28, Auburn 20.
Even so, is there anything here to demonstrate that Penn State fans have harmed themselves or anyone else by returning to football-fevered normal? Anything? Dare it rather be asked whether this far along in the pandemic a White Out doesn’t rather signal howling sanity amid hysteria worn thin?
Dr Fauci and his media acolytes might drop the sports agony for now. They will have other opportunities to worry. Already daredevil families are planning to gather not only bare-faced but indoors over the holidays ahead.