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Report: Super Bowl Not A Superspreader Event, But Cases Likely Underreported

A group of Buccaneers shirt wearing, maskless people gather outside a home. They've set up an outdoor bar and flags.
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
A group of Buccaneers fans celebrates before the Super Bowl at a residence neighboring Raymond James Stadium.

People refusing to cooperate with contact tracing; young, asymptomatic people not getting tested; and logistical challenges of tracking COVID-19 likely led to Super Bowl-linked cases being underreported.

Before the Super Bowl, public health officials expressed concerns that crowds in and around Raymond James Stadium could lead to a large spike in new coronavirus cases.

A report released Wednesday by the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County says that didn't happen.

Research by the health department showed that in the weeks following the Super Bowl and other events, cases of COVID-19 and the positivity rate were slightly higher in the Tampa Bay area, compared the rest of the state, Health Department director Dr. Douglas Holt told the Hillsborough County board of commissioners on Wednesday.

"This was likely due to the unofficial Super Bowl gatherings at homes, restaurants and bars," Holt said. "It's not classified as a superspreader event.”

Only 53 in-state and four out-of-state cases were linked to official Super Bowl events.

There a likely several reason that the event didn't cause the expected surge, said Marissa Levine, a professor of Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida.

"We were already seeing the numbers come down, which means that the ingredients weren't as ripe for it to spread much more widely, which is good," Levine said.

Official events also required masks, encouraged distancing and limited attendance numbers. Unofficial events were — at least in part — also held outside.

But the data doesn’t paint a complete picture.

Testing numbers have been going down, and fewer tests means fewer cases. The report also notes that about 50% of people reached for contact tracing refused to participate.

And many people who participated in pre- and post-Super Bowl parties were young, and may have been infected but not developed symptoms and did not get tested.

These factors, along with others, likely skewed the data to underreport new cases linked to large, maskless crowds gathering in Ybor City and around the stadium to celebrate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ win, according to the report.

From the report:

Given these sources of transmission, especially in-household gatherings and other private parties, it’s likely that that the true number of COVID cases related to this community-wide event is likely much higher. Pictures and videos from the community gatherings and post-game celebrations show significant and large crowds that further support this conclusion. Limitations like loss to follow-up, hesitancy from cases to disclose their social histories, and the logistical challenges of cross-jurisdictional case notifications - both intrastate and interstate – certainly result in significant undercounting of the cases related to this event and obscure its impact.
Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County COVID-19 Super Bowl Surveillance Summary

Levine also says that while most public health officials say it’s too early for vaccinations to be making a significant impact yet, “I have to think that yes, every day since we're vaccinating thousands of people, it's going to help and maybe did help us, in some small way.”

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.