As of Tuesday evening, the NCAA said it was still assessing how the novel coronavirus might impact the way in which it conducts its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Public health officials and experts, however, believe it would be unwise to hold the event with fans in the stands, at the very least.
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning, when asked specifically about sporting events like the NCAA tournament and the NBA.
“If that means not having any people in the audience … so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would give a risk to spread.”
The NCAA has said it would consult with public health officials before altering or proceeding with the events.
March Madness, as it is colloquially known, could pose a unique public health challenge given both the number of teams and tournament sites involved.
The first and second rounds of the men’s tournament, for example, are scheduled to be played at eight sites across the country, from Spokane, Washington to Tampa, Florida. The play-in games, known as the “First Four,” are slated to start Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio — where the governor of the state has specifically asked that sporting events not be held with fans present.
The NCAA women’s tournament is set to begin next weekend with games held at campus sites — just as colleges around the country begin sending students home and start holding classes remotely.
Greg Gray, a professor and infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Duke, told USA TODAY Sports in an email Tuesday that even though about 80% of healthy young people infected with coronavirus, or COVID-19, are likely to quickly recover, the concern is that they could still transmit the virus to high-risk populations — such as the elderly.
“Where tournament games … are held in geographical areas with relatively high (coronavirus) transmission, the games may accelerate that transmission — both in the number of new cases and in the geographical dispersion of new cases,” Gray wrote.
Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, said on a conference call that it is time to shift the strategy on coronavirus in the United States from containment to mitigation. That means, among other things, making efforts to avoid events with large crowds — such as sporting events.
When asked specifically about the NCAA tournament, and risks it could pose to athletes even without fans present, he stressed that the most important step to slow transmission, from a numbers standpoint, is to stop large crowds from gathering.
“Basketball is not rugby. There’s not quite as much close contact, but there is a lot of contact,” Lipsitch said. “So I think it wouldn’t be risk-free (to hold the NCAA tournament without fans), but I think in general it’d be a better approach than exposing huge numbers of people.”
Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has infected 113,000 people around the world, resulting in more than 4,000 deaths. The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the virus to be a global pandemic.
While the NCAA has yet to make a final determination on March Madness, conferences make their own decisions on whether to proceed. The Ivy League cancelled its conference basketball tournaments altogether. The Big West and MAC said their tournaments would be held without fans. And the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 decided to move forward as usual, playing in arenas with fans present.
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