March Madness is set to begin in just over a week and the NCAA is charging ahead, insisting that its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will go on as usual. It’s doing so despite public health and epidemiology experts from some of the very schools whose teams are projected to participate in the tournaments advising against it.
More than 1,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States, and at least 32 have died of the disease. More than 100,000 have been infected and more than 4,000 died worldwide. The novel coronavirus spreads easily among people in close quarters, which is why sporting leagues, music festivals, college campuses, and political rallies have been shut down or postponed all over the country and the world in an attempt to stem transmission of the virus, which is especially dangerous for elderly people and people with pre-existing health problems. The NCAA, however, has so far remained adamant that it will not change course, and will hold the tournaments as planned.
“I would encourage them to cancel this event,” said Xi Chen, a professor of public health, global health, and economics at Yale University. “The droplets can spread from person to person without touching, and people within a close distance are at high risk.
“This is very big scale. […] And this is also an event that people may travel from. This makes the virus spread. The transmission of the virus is very much determined by the mobility of the population. We should remove such events and reduce traveling.”
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Yale earned an automatic berth in the men’s tournament after the Ivy League canceled its conference basketball tournament due to coronavirus. Professors at other schools tipped for entry into the tournament also think the NCAA should limit crowds.
Dr. Joseph Eisenberg, who chairs the epidemiology department at the University of Michigan’s school of public health, said the NCAA should consider the timing of the tournament.
“I think at this point we're at this critical stage of this outbreak in the U.S. where we really want to do everything we can to minimize transmission for the next two to three weeks,” he said. “I think one of the major ways to do that is to limit travel and also minimize or cancel large events. Campuses are now very quickly doing that with respect to classes,” he said citing a few of the dozens of colleges that have cancelled in-person classes.
“If you look at South Korea’s [infection rate] where it built up and then plateaued very quickly, we want to look more like that, rather than Italy, where it's rising and no plateau so far.”
Dr. Shenglan Tang, the deputy director of the Duke Global Health Institute, agreed.
“My suggestion is to be cautious,” he said. "You cancel the event, and you may have economic loss in the moment, but if you go ahead with the event you can have lots of people infected by the coronavirus and the potential economic loss can be much much bigger. My position is you've got to be cautious about that and not focus on the short-term economic loss."
Dr. Volker Mai, a professor in the University of Florida’s department of epidemiology who stressed that he’s not working in the area of viral pandemics and so is offering a personal opinion, said that the transmission of any disease with a significant mortality rate should be minimized.
“The current understanding of mortality rates for the new virus is lacking important data on asymptomatic cases,” he told VICE in an email. “We certainly would want to minimize ANY disease with a significant mortality rate, such as what is suspected for the novel corona virus.
“I don’t know if we can prevent rather than simply delay the spread of coronavirus by cancelling large events and minimizing air travel. Nevertheless, there seems to be a benefit to society by simply doing something.”
A doctor at Tufts, a DIII school with absolutely no stake in the NCAA tournament, also wants the tournament to be modified.
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, told VICE in an email that the NCAA would be wise to consider playing without fans in the arenas.
“Public health experts say that once community spread has begun, the phase of ‘containment’ has ended and the phase of ‘mitigation’ begins,” she told VICE. “This means no longer trying to find every case of a disease, isolate those who are sick and quarantine those who are exposed. Rather, mitigation includes things like social distancing and vaccination. Because vaccination is rather far off, social distancing is key now, including limiting the size of gatherings. As has been done in Japan, sporting events without live audiences would be preferred in order to achieve social distancing.”
For its part, the NCAA says that none of the experts it’s listening to have “advised against holding sporting events.” Yesterday, after the Ivy League announced it was cancelling its conference tournament, the NCAA put out a statement from President Mark Emmert that said:
NCAA member schools and conferences make their own decisions regarding regular season and conference tournament play. As we have stated, we will make decisions on our events based on the best, most current public health guidance available. Neither the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel, made up of leading public health and infectious disease experts in America, nor the CDC or local health officials have advised against holding sporting events. In the event circumstances change, we will make decisions accordingly.
(The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment on the opinions of the experts VICE spoke to about cancelling or modifying the tournament or questions about its decision to stay the course.)
VICE reached out to each person on the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel: Dr. Stephanie Chu, a team physician at University of Colorado, Boulder and an NCAA Committee member; Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general and an NCAA Board of Governors member; Mike Rodriguez, a former NYPD cop and the director of security for the U.S. Tennis Association; Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University; Dr. Carlos del Rio, the chair of the global health department at Emory; Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital; and Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s medical school. None of them responded.
Del Rio gave an interview to the Washington Post a week ago in which he said that the NCAA was making a “business decision” about the tournament and stressed the evolving and unpredictable nature of the coronavirus. He said:
“If the tournament was today — except for places like Spokane or Washington, where you may have some questions — I would say: ‘Go on. There’s no concern,’ ” del Rio said. “But will that change? It may. I would have never predicted we’d be where we are with Italy. And yet we are. Nobody a month ago would have in their wildest dreams said, ‘Italy is going to be a disaster.’"
The NCAA makes nearly a billion dollars a year off of March Madness from sponsorships and lucrative TV broadcast deals—a large portion of the organization’s annual budget. But the NCAA, which hoards the money, refusing to paying the workers responsible for making it, will be just fine if the tournament gets cancelled. NCAA chief operating officer Donald Remy told Bloomberg that they have a contingency plan in place:
Should the worst-case scenario occur--and the Indianapolis-based organization suffers severe monetary damages as a result of the virus--Remy said the NCAA has reserves and a business-interruption insurance policy that it believes would partially cover losses.
In the end, the NCAA might successfully dither itself out of having to make any decisions. Yesterday, Ohio governor Mike DeWine announced that indoor sporting events would be held without spectators and Washington governor Jay Inslee is reportedly set to announce a restriction on gatherings of 250 or more people.
Update 4:35 p.m. ET: NCAA President Mark Emmert says the NCAA tournament games will be played without fans:
The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel. Based on their advice and my discussions with the NCAA Board of Governors, I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance. While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States. This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families. Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.
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