How risky are large outdoor events? Doctor says it depends on the kind of risk

Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia, now requires visitors to provide printed proof of full COVID vaccination or proof of a negative test result within 72 hours of attending an event.

But no such rules are in place at some other large outdoor venues around D.C., such as FedEx Field.

So, with football season well underway, what’s the risk of catching COVID in those places?

“As an infectious disease epidemiologist, I think about big events two ways,” said Dr. Meagan Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. These, she said, are the absolute risk to particular attendees and the overall public health risk.

As an example, she used a hypothetical outdoor event of 10,000 people not showing symptoms, with the current case rate in D.C. and Maryland of about 25 daily COVID cases per 100,000 people. Even accounting for underreporting, Fitzpatrick thinks the risk of contracting COVID is probably low.

“You would maybe think to yourself that there’s probably about 10 to maybe 20 infected people who don’t know that they’re infectious who might be at one of those events. Now, your absolute risk, your personal absolute risk of encountering one of those people is probably low for you, an individual,” she said.

People with underlying conditions that make them susceptible to more severe COVID symptoms might be uncomfortable with any probability of risk. She notes those attendees may choose to wear the very best mask they possibly can. And to keep it on the whole time.

From a public health perspective, Fitzpatrick said, COVID spread does happen at big events where there’s lots of singing, yelling or cheering — which is an efficient way to spread coronavirus among people in close proximity to one another.

“So we can simultaneously say that these events are pretty low risk for the majority of the people who are attending them. And also that they are events at which coronavirus spreads,” she said.

“Both of those things are true because one is the individual risk perspective. And the other one is the public health perspective, which is that we want to, obviously, cut off as many chains of transmission as possible.”

When assessing degrees of risk, Fitzpatrick said, the size of groups matters.

“So if you had 10 people, or 10,000, people doing the exact same thing, I think it’s pretty clear and intuitive for people to understand that your risk is 1,000 times higher for the event with 10,000 people, right?” she asked rhetorically. “The personal risk, of course, we know escalates pretty dramatically, when you do go inside, and particularly if you go into places that are not well ventilated.”

Because the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus is still active, Fitzpatrick wants anyone attending large events to activate the contact-tracing app on their smartphones.

People might not know or ever see again others standing near them for multiple hours at a concert or sporting event, she said. But the app, using Bluetooth, knows who was near someone who ends up testing positive for COVID — and it sends out notifications.

“And that’s a way that you can protect your family, the people you love, your friends from you becoming that link in a new transmission training chain to them,” Fitzpatrick said.

Asked what she’d like to emphasize to give people context about where we are in this pandemic, Fitzpatrick said she’s still concerned about how many people are being hospitalized with the disease.

“Despite the fact that we here in the Maryland, DC, Virginia area have such great vaccine coverage, we are still seeing higher rates of hospitalization than really at any point other than last year’s winter surge, when we had no vaccine at all. And it is really concerning that we are still at this point where we have so many hospitalizations and not as many precautions in place as during that winter surge,” she said.

“So I think for me, assessing the point that we’re in, I always look to the hospitalizations to ask how many people are getting really sick. And that number is much higher than we would like it to be.”

The latest data regarding COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are available online.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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