The COVID-19 college football crisis

27 communities facing a perfect storm of vulnerability

College football season got off to a rocky start this year. Different football conferences tightened or loosened health restrictions and policies on allowing fans, and some initially delayed their seasons — all due to COVID-19. And all the while, as the CDC recently reported, weekly COVID cases among college-aged Americans were increasing.

To show how our COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index (CCVI) illustrates vulnerability through at-risk populations in communities — especially those college communities that are about to see an influx of superspreader events like football games and tailgate parties — we conducted an analysis using CCVI data, along with CDC and Unacast mobility data. Our researchers looked at 65 U.S. counties that are home to the schools of the Power 5 college football conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big Ten Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Pacific-12 Conference (PAC-12) Conference, and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). (If a school had more than one campus location, we selected the county where the main campus was located.)

From this group of 65 counties, we found 27 that are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 severity due to higher-than-average proportions of elderly residents (i.e., greater than the national average over-65 population of 15.2%), large numbers of people suffering from underlying chronic conditions (i.e. a county demonstrating high epidemiological vulnerability, captured by Theme 5 on the COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index) or both.

Those 27 schools and counties are (in alphabetical order):

  • Arizona (Pima, AZ);
  • Arkansas (Washington, AR);
  • Auburn (Lee, AL);
  • Boston College (Norfolk, MA);
  • Clemson (Pickens, SC);
  • Georgia Tech (Fulton, GA);
  • Indiana (Monroe, IN);
  • Iowa (Johnson, IA);
  • Louisville (Jefferson, KY);
  • LSU (East Baton Rouge, LA);
  • Miami (Miami-Dade, FL);
  • Missouri (Boone, MO);
  • Nebraska (Lancaster, NE);
  • Northwestern (Cook, IL);
  • Ohio State (Franklin, OH);
  • Oklahoma (Cleveland, OK);
  • Ole Miss (Lafayette, MO);
  • Oregon (Lane, OR);
  • Oregon State (Benton, OR);
  • Pittsburgh (Allegheny, PA);
  • Rutgers (Middlesex, NJ);
  • Syracuse (Onondaga, NY);
  • Tennessee (Knox, TN);
  • Vanderbilt (Davidson, TN);
  • Virginia (Albemarle, VA);
  • Virginia Tech (Montgomery, VA); and
  • University of Washington (King, WA).

We also wanted to see if any of these college communities were especially vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak due to two additional factors: communities that demonstrated a “very high transmission risk” (according to CDC school decision thresholds with a greater than 10% change in new cases per 100K during the past week, compared to the previous week) and low social distancing (defined as those counties graded with a D+ or lower by Unacast).

From that list, we identified the following six college communities as being in the COVID-19 danger zone:

At the time of this writing, three institutions within this list of six — Clemson, Louisville, and University of Virginia — are currently at increased risk due to policies allowing fans to attend games in-person, creating additional opportunities for COVID-19 spread.

While college football is normally a lighthearted topic, the potential danger in these college communities is not. We used our CCVI to make an important point about the converging factors in these communities — factors that increase the risk of COVID transmission to not just college football players, coaches, and fans, but to people in the surrounding communities who are already at risk for severe illness. We hope college administrators and local officials in these areas look at our data, take the threat seriously, and rethink their policies on allowing fans, especially as these institutions reassess their COVID-19 policies.

This work was made possible by everyone at the Surgo Foundation, including but not limited to (in alphabetical order): Bethany Hardy, Tichakunda Mangono, and Staci Sutermaster.

Technical Note: All data are as of September 29, 2020.

We use all the tools available from behavioral science, data science, and artificial intelligence to unlock solutions that will save and improve people’s lives.

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