College football is back and that means packed stadiums at home fields for the first time since 2019.
While gridiron fans flocked to their favorite team’s home field on Saturday for the first week of the 2021 season, public health experts were warning that now was not the time to get back to pre-pandemic business as usual.
The Indian Delta variant continues to fuel a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths nationwide, particularly in the South, where tens of thousands of rabid college football fans came out to cheer on their heroes on Saturday.
Michigan fans in the student section of Michigan Stadium cheer in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday
Purdue Boilermakers fans celebrate during the first quarter against the Oregon State Beavers at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana on Saturday
Auburn mascot Aubie leads the fans in a cheer during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Akron on Saturday in Auburn, Alabama
Last season, teams played college football games, but attendance was limited in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines put in place by local and state governments.
This year, however, restrictions have been lifted. Fans in many stadiums – including the Swamp in Gainesville, Florida, home to the Florida Gators – were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with no masks.
They were also not required to show proof of vaccination.
Florida is in the grip of its deadliest wave of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, a disaster driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Texas Longhorns fans hold up a fan in the second half of the game against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin on Saturday
Texas A&M fans cheer as the Aggies take the field against Kent State before the the start of an NCAA college football game on Saturday in College Station, Texas
Fans cheer before the Good Sam Vegas Kickoff Classic between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Arizona Wildcats at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday
Fans pack Nippert Stadium prior to an NCAA college football game between Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati on Saturday
A Kentucky fan raises his finger during the playing of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ before an NCAA college football game against Louisiana-Monroe in Lexington on Saturday
While Florida’s vaccination rate is slightly higher than the national average, the Sunshine State has an outsize population of elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to the virus; a vibrant party scene; and a Republican governor who has taken a hard line against mask requirements, vaccine passports and business shutdowns.
As of mid-August, the state was averaging 244 deaths per day, up from just 23 a day in late June and eclipsing the previous peak of 227 during the summer of 2020. (Because of both the way deaths are logged in Florida and lags in reporting, more recent figures on fatalities per day are incomplete.)
Hospitals have had to rent refrigerated trucks to store more bodies. Funeral homes have been overwhelmed.
In a positive sign, the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 in Florida has dropped over the past two weeks from more than 17,000 to 14,200 on Friday, indicating the surge is easing.
Overall, more than 46,300 people have died of COVID-19 in Florida, which ranks 17th in per-capita deaths among the states.
Vanderbilt fans cheer in the first half of an NCAA college football game against East Tennessee State in Nashville on Saturday
Fans watch the first half of an NCAA college football game between Washington State and Utah State at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington on Saturday
Georgia fans cheer after the team’s win against Clemson at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday
Camron Humphrey of the Montana Grizzlies celebrates with fans after defeating Washington Huskies 13-7 at Husky Stadium in Seattle on Saturday
Fans cheer during the game between the Washington Huskies and the Montana Grizzlies at Husky Stadium on Saturday
Virginia fans pack the student section during an NCAA college football game against William & Mary in Charlottesville on Saturday
Southern California fans cheer as the band plays before an NCAA college football game against San Jose State in Los Angeles on Saturday
Fans of the Virginia Cavaliers cheer in the second half during a game at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville on Saturday
The majority of the deaths this summer – like last summer – are among the elderly.
Of the 2,345 people whose recent deaths were reported over the past week, 1,479 of them were 65 and older — or 63 percent.
Not all schools are following the University of Florida’s lead.
Louisiana State University announced last month that all fans over the age of 12 who attend home games at Tiger Stadium this fall will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
The Florida Gators had 88,000 people in the stands on Saturday for their season opener against Florida Atlantic University in Gainesville.
The Gators, who are ranked 13th in the country, defeated FAU 35-14.
LSU lost in their season opener, which they played on the road at the University of California, Los Angeles.
UCLA prevailed over LSU 38-27. The school’s athletic director said that there were 68,213 fans in attendance at the game, which was held at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena.
As vaccine distribution ramped up earlier this year, California loosened restrictions on theme parks and stadium attendance.
Texas fans celebrate during the second half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Louisiana-Lafayette in Austin on Saturday
Southern California fans cheer during the second half of an NCAA college football game against San Jose State
Miami Hurricanes fans react after Miami turned the ball over on downs during the third quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday
Iowa State Cyclones fans cheer on their team as they take on the Northern Iowa Panthers in the second half of play at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa on Saturday
Pittsburgh fans cheer at the start of the fourth quarter during an NCAA college football game between Pittsburgh and Massachusetts in Pittsburgh on Saturday
Fans show support in the game between the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks and the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first half at Nippert Stadium
Fans cheer in the student section of Michigan Stadium at the start of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan in Ann Arbor
More than 100,000 people attended the Michigan-Western Michigan game at The Big House in Ann Arbor on Saturday
The image above shows Colorado Buffaloes fans in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Boulder, Colorado on Friday
Oklahoma Sooners fans watch as quarterback Michael Pratt (7) of the Tulane Green Wave runs a play in the red zone against the Oklahoma Sooners defense in the first quarter at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma on Saturday
The Rose Bowl Stadium can hold up to 91,000 spectators.
Schools that play in the powerhouse Southeast Conference saw attendance figures skyrocket on Saturday.
The University of Alabama crushed Miami at the kickoff event in Atlanta on Saturday. The game drew nearly 72,000 fans.
More than 64,000 people watched the University of Arkansas run roughshod over Rice 38-17 in Fayetteville on Saturday.
The University of Georgia edged powerhouse Clemson 10-3 in front of 74,187 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
In Lexington, the University of Kentucky crushed Louisiana-Monroe 45-10 at Kroger Field in a game that was attended by 47,693 fans.
The South isn’t the only region to go football crazy on Saturday.
More than 100,000 fans gathered at the Big House in Ann Arbor to watch Michigan rout Western Michigan 47-14.
Arizona State fans cheer during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern Utah in Tempe, Arizona on Thursday
Ball State University fans watch as the team runs onto the field before an NCAA football game against Western Illinois on Thursday
Ball State University players sing the school song to their fans after winning an NCAA football game against Western Illinois in Muncie, Indiana
Arizona State fans in the first half during an NCAA football game against Southern Utah in Tempe, Arizona on Thursday
New Mexico fans cheer for their team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston Baptist on Thursday in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Virginia Tech fans await the start of the team’s NCAA college football game against North Carolina in Blacksburg, Virginia on Friday
Public health officials say that while they can understand the desire among sports fans to attend games, now is not the time.
‘I am a die-hard sports fan,’ said Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, told Kaiser Health News.
‘But I would not go to these events right now.’
On Friday, the national seven-day rolling average of daily new cases was nearly 163,000, an increase of more than 300 percent from Labor Day weekend 2020, according to a DailyMail.com analysis of Johns Hopkins data.
Hospitalizations also doubled, and deaths were up 80 percent from last Labor Day.
The figures came despite 62 percent of the total US population now having received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine. Fifty-three percent of the population is fully vaccinated, the CDC says.
Vaccination does appear to be reducing deaths among the most vulnerable, however, with deaths and hospitalizations rising at a slower rate than overall cases.
All three measures remain well below their US peak in early January, and there are signs that the latest wave might be cresting, with the CDC estimating that more than 80 percent of the population now has immunity either through recovering from infection or getting vaccinated.
Hospitals have been overflowing with COVID-19 patients, prompting public health officials to plead with those who are unvaccinated to get the shot.
Experts warn that even among the vaccinated there has been an increase in breakthrough infections.
While the vaccine has prevented severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, it does not prevent those who are infected from transmitting the coronavirus to unvaccinated, thus putting them at risk.
Football fans are usually outdoors, which mitigates risk. But sitting within a few feet of screaming spectators still increases the odds of transmission, according to epidemiologists.
‘A packed football stadium now is not a good idea,’ Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at the University of Miami’s medical school, told KHN.
‘When there’s a lot of shouting and yelling’ without masks, ‘it means they’re spraying the virus.’
All of the infectious disease experts interviewed by KHN said that those who are unvaccinated should under no circumstances attend games.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said on Sunday that the Moderna booster shot may not be ready by September 20 as previously thought – but said the booster for the Pfizer vaccine is on track to get the go-ahead later this month.
He said the plan to begging administering booster shots for coronavirus vaccines on September 20 is still the plan ‘in some respects,’ but noted the Monderna booster will take longer to be ready than previously expected.
‘We were hoping that we would get the, both the candidates, both products, Moderna and Pfizer, rolled out by the week of the 20th,’ the nation’s top immunologist told CBS Face the Nation guest host Weijia Jiang.
‘It is conceivable that we will only have one of them out, but the other would likely follow soon thereafter,’ Fauci added.
‘And the reason for that is that we, as we’ve said right from the very beginning, we’re not going to do anything unless it gets the appropriate FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regulatory approval and then the recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.’
‘Looks like Pfizer has their data in and likely would meet the deadline,’ he said.
‘So the bottom line is very likely at least part of the plan will be implemented but ultimately the entire plan will be.’
Fauci also recommended that people try to get the same booster shot associated with the original vaccine they received as studies are ongoing to determine if mixing vaccines provides an effective booster.
Health officials originally planned to roll out both boosters for Pfizer and Moderna at the same time.
Fauci said that Pfizer-BioNTech already submitted the necessary data on booster shots to the FDA, but Moderna has yet to complete the process.
In a statement released Wednesday, Moderna said it had ‘initiated its submission’ of booster data to the FDA.
Last month the Biden administration announced it would start offering boosters to Americans by September 20, usurping the process by which the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention usually decide on such issues, current and former FDA scientists and CDC advisory panel members told Reuters.
Scientists are still debating how much additional immunity boosters provide and whether all Americans should get another shot, rather than just those at high risk of severe illness.