Contracting COVID-19 through sports: Wisconsin study shows little relationship

VALE – Student athletes in Oregon continue to sit on the sidelines, unable to compete due to restrictions placed by the state and the Oregon School Activities Association. The rulings are due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state.

A recent study released by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in collaboration with the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association finds minimal risk of student athletes contracting the disease through youth sports. Wisconsin restarted high school sports this past fall with the study representing over 30,000 student athletes participating in 16,000 practices and 4.000 competitive games.

Of the 30,074 student athletes in the study, 271 cases of COVID-19 were reported, a case rate of 901 per 100,000 children. Among all 14 to 17 year olds in Wisconsin, a total of 2,318 cases were reported, a rate of 1,035 per 100,000 children.

Football led the positive rate among the sports with an incidence rate of 0.000458. Cheer/Dance came in with the second highest incidence rate at 0.000384 while boys’ soccer was third with a rate of 0.000372.

The 271 positive cases involving athletes were asked to report the source if known. Of the total, 207 cases were traced as follows:

                Household contact                                                     115 (55%)

                School contact (not sports)                                        5 (2.4%)

                Community contact (not sport or school)               85 (40.7%)

                Other contact                                                            3 (1.4%)

                Unknown                                                                  62 (29.7%)

                Sport contact                                                           1 (0.5%)

The study included schools conducting both in-person and virtual classes. Researchers concluded the incidence of COVID-19 did not differ between schools with virtual versus in-person instruction among athletes. All the schools in the study reported a formal plan in place regarding risk reduction.

Among the positive cases in Wisconsin student athletes, no cases resulted in death or hospitalizations.

Not everyone agrees with the results of the Wisconsin study. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit agency, issued an article on October 27 after interviewing six medical experts regarding the information in the Wisconsin study.

“Although I would like for (UW’s) conclusions to be true, it is not consistent with many reports nationwide, including here in Atlanta, of clusters of COVID-19 cases in student-athletes,” said Dr. Neel Gandhi, a professor of infectious diseases, epidemiology and global health at Emory University.

According to the Aspen Institute’s article, Shelby County Tennessee reported 83% of the first 500 positive COVID-19 cases of students and school staff were able to be traced directly back to sports.

Minnesota reported 3,400 cases of the virus with 593 of the cases traced to high school athletes according to the Aspen article.

Experts state the Wisconsin article has not been peer-reviewed and was based on self-reported data.

“There’s a big difference between a lack of in-competition transmission and saying sports themselves do not spread COVID-19,” said Zach Binney, Emory University epidemiologist. “We have example after example of outbreaks on college football, pro football, high school football, ice hockey and MLB teams that may not have had anything to do with the competition per se. But unless you’ve figured out how to have a sports season with only the games and no other physical contact or gathering, it’s not really that relevant.”

The leader of the Wisconsin study, Dr. Drew Watson, a primary care sports medicine physician at the University of Wisconsin, defended the study.

“Our hope is to be able to insert some amount of useful information into the discussion,” said Watson, a team physician for the University of Wisconsin athletics department. “I try to be upfront about the inherent limitations of this type of survey data collection, but as we replicate it and find similar results, my confidence grows that what we are measuring is real.”

“Our data can really only speak broadly to the incidence among athletes relative to the background incidence across the state,” Watson continued. “Based on the reported sources of infection among the athletes, it seems like most are contracting COVID from outside of athletics and that the incidence in athletes may simply be a representation of the background incidence without a significant added effect of sports participation.”

The Aspen Institute article also took exception with the Wisconsin’s study use of self-reporting. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has reported incidents of police being called after health care workers were threatened for recommending quarantine of students. It has also been reported groups of students have made pacts not be tested or to maintain silence if they think they are sick.

As of today, high school sports in Oregon is scheduled to resume December 28 with basketball, wrestling and swimming on track to begin.

To view the Wisconsin study, see

To view the Aspen Institute article, see