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Flu deaths rise when a city gets a new pro sports team: study

Study: Flu deaths rise when cities get pro sports teams
WATCH: A new study has found that flu deaths rise when a city gets a new pro sports team

When a pro sports team starts playing in a new city, it brings with it more deaths caused by influenza, a new study has found — results which may help inform coronavirus reopening plans.

Researchers from the U.S. and Canada analyzed the death rates before and after a city received a new team from one of the four major leagues: Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) or the National Hockey League (NHL).

The experts used statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on weekly influenza deaths in 122 U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000 between the years 1962 and 2016. They found that when an NHL team arrived in a city, it resulted in a 24.6 per cent increase in the local flu mortality rate ⁠— or about 20 more flu deaths per city per year.

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Read more: The New Reality — What will the future of sports look like?

When a new NFL team arrived, there was a 17 per cent increase ⁠— or 13 additional flu deaths per city per year.

When a new NBA team arrived, there was a nearly 5 per cent increase, and with new MLB teams, there was a 5.3 per cent increase. Both of these rates equate to about three additional deaths per city per year.

Researchers controlled for variables like population, weather, annual flu strain and arena attendance.

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The study was part of an effort to understand what could happen if and when spectators are welcomed back to pro sports games amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, since influenza and COVID-19 share similar transmission patterns.

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“We wanted to find out what we might see when we started opening up the doors to arenas for people to watch sports teams,” Brian Soebbing, one of the researchers involved in the study and an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta, told Folio.

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Soebbing worked alongside researchers from the West Virginia University and the University of South Carolina.

“Regardless of magnitude, the estimates are significant across all four sports leagues and, as expected, vary in magnitude,” he said. “The arrival of a new professional sports team increases flu mortality in the city and (the effect) is permanent.”

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According to Soebbing, researchers saw a decrease in mortality rates when teams went on a temporary hiatus⁠— but this didn’t happen with every break in playing.

Only the 1982 NFL stoppage and the 2011 NBA work stoppage had a negative impact on death rates related to influenza.

“Sports league reopening policies should take into account the role played by sporting events in increasing local seasonal flu mortality,” researchers said in the paper.

Read more: NHL, players’ association announce Toronto and Edmonton as hub cities amid coronavirus

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Soebbing says the results of this study can teach policymakers about what to do ⁠— and what not to do ⁠— when restarting pro sports leagues after COVID-19 cancellations.

Each league is taking a different approach to resuming play amid the pandemic.

The NHL is on course to resume its season later this summer using Toronto and Edmonton as “hub cities” for play. The plan will see Eastern Conference clubs report to Toronto on July 26, while those from the Western Conference will head to Edmonton before games resume Aug. 1.

Read more: Calgary Flames’ Hamonic becomes 1st NHL player to opt out of league’s plan to play during pandemic

Once in Canada’s largest city and Alberta’s capital, players are set to be kept away from the general public in so-called “bubbles” that include strict health measures and daily testing, and teams will be mostly confined to hotels and empty arenas.

One of Canada’s most prominent infectious disease specialists says he has no problem “whatsoever” with major league sports starting up again.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease professor at the University of Toronto, has spent months advising caution and distancing to Canadians. But he also believes professional sports can proceed under conditions that are in line with public health guidelines and approved by health officials and communities.

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Read more: Ontario Premier Doug Ford confident in NHL’s pandemic plan for hub cities

“Can you create protocols to ensure players are safe, to ensure personnel are safe, to ensure that the community where this is taking place is safe? Absolutely,” Bogoch previously told the Canadian Press.

“You absolutely can.”

But risk can’t be entirely eliminated, he said. When you bring more people together, you increase the number of transmission points.

Bogoch has watched the pandemic for months and concluded that “we have to just get used to living with some uncertainty and a little bit of risk while we’re in the pre-vaccine era of COVID-19.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

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For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

⁠— With files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Eric Sorensen

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca