On Saturday, the Texas Longhorns opened the NCAA football season by beating the UTEP Miners 59–3. It wasn’t much of a contest, and the outcome was never in question. But there were plenty of non-football questions swirling around the matchup whose answers were less predetermined: How many of the more than 15,000 fans in the stadium were infected with COVID-19? Would they be passing it to one another as they waited in line to enter, as they cheered in the stands, or as they stood in line for concessions? What message did university officials send to students, who have been ordered to avoid large gatherings? Vegas oddsmakers had the Longhorns entering the contest as a 42-point favorite; alas, no one was prepared to offer odds on whether the game would turn into a super-spreader event.
One thing known for sure: the crowd almost certainly wasn’t COVID-free. The 1,198 students who purchased the “Big Ticket” package from the university were required to test negative in a rapid antigen test for the virus before they could receive their tickets. Of those tests, 95 came back positive. (J.B. Bird, a university spokesperson, told Texas Monthly that UT later revised its data: 26 of those cases had been previously reported, so there were only 69 new cases found by the tests.) That’s a positivity rate of nearly 8 percent, higher than the 5 percent threshold recommended by the World Health Organization before government officials end lockdown measures—let alone allow a football game to be played with fans in the stands. A rate that high in a sample population makes it vanishingly unlikely that the other 14,000-plus fans were all somehow COVID-free. But the University of Texas isn’t bound by WHO guidelines—it’s free to take risks with the health of its students, staff, fans, and student athletes.
Saturday’s game was just the latest example of UT-Austin’s inconsistent handling of COVID-19. Though the flagship university was an early adopter in instituting an online “COVID dashboard,” the information it offers is incomplete. The dashboard tells us, for example, that 18 students tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, but it doesn’t indicate how many were tested. Was it 18 students out of 1,000, or 18 out of 20? Without that number, all anybody really knows is that those 18 students should be in isolation until they’re no longer infectious.
In August, the university announced a “proactive community testing” program, which selects faculty, students, and staff who are not currently exhibiting COVID symptoms and offers them the opportunity to volunteer for free testing. This initiative was intended to track the asymptomatic spread of the virus among a wide swath of the university community—the initial announcement from the school promised 5,000 weekly tests—but last week, only 1,218 tests were administered. In an email to Texas Monthly, Bird indicated that while the capacity to conduct the tests is in place, staff “are working hard to get students to come in.” The school’s dashboard boasts of the program’s 1.4 percent positivity rate among its pool of asymptomatic volunteers, but that doesn’t mean that it reflects the prevalence of the disease at the university as a whole.
“I wouldn’t always interpret a low test positivity as everything being just fine,” said Kathleen Bachynski, a Muhlenberg College professor whose work focuses on the intersection of public health and sports. Those who volunteer to help the university with surveillance testing are more likely to be observing other responsible behaviors, so she’s not confident that it’s possible to draw conclusions from the program. The positivity rate from students attending the game, meanwhile, worried her: “If you have a test positivity higher than five percent, I feel comfortable saying you’re not doing enough testing.”
Other large Texas public universities that are playing football in front of fans this fall offer varying information on their COVID-19 dashboards. Only Texas A&M, which opens its football season on September 26 in front of a reduced-capacity crowd, provides both the number of positive cases and the number of tests conducted (as of Monday, the school’s positivity rate sat at just over 10 percent). Texas Tech, which opened its football season on Saturday by hosting 11,000 fans to watch the game against Houston Baptist, offers only the number of confirmed cases. The University of North Texas, which began playing in front of a 25 percent capacity crowd the week before, and Texas State University, which has hosted two games in front of a similarly reduced capacity, both provide only a number of confirmed cases, with no denominator.
Those figures aren’t completely useless—at the very least, the fact that 18 UT-Austin students tested positive on Monday provides the community with the information that those 18 individuals should be in isolation until they’re no longer infectious—but they don’t do much to help us understand broader epidemiological trends on campus.
The results from testing 1,198 students who wanted tickets to the game might provide a bit more insight, but even that 7.9 percent positivity rate could represent a significant undercount. “You can have false negatives the first couple days right after you’ve been exposed, because it takes time for the virus to replicate enough to detect,” Bachynski said. “It depends a lot on when the test is given in the course of the illness, but 95 positive tests is a real red flag.” The university hasn’t suggested that one of the goals of hosting fans at the game was to increase its pool of test volunteers, but even those hoping that getting this data might provide a silver lining to the risky decision to open the stadium will be disappointed. While false positives are unlikely outside of a lab error, rapid antigen tests can have a false-negative rate as high as 50 percent.
There is a lot we don’t know about the spread of COVID-19 at Texas universities, in other words, even as football games create a crowded environment where masked, socially distant fans (assuming everyone wears their mask properly and keeps their distance) will share common areas like entrances, concessions, and bathrooms. We know that more than 10 percent of tests administered by Texas A&M come back positive. We know that Texas State, Texas Tech, and UNT don’t provide any positivity rate information at all on their dashboards, making it impossible for anyone to find out at a glance how prevalent the coronavirus is on those campuses. We know that the positivity rate the UT-Austin dashboard provides excludes people who sought tests because they were experiencing symptoms or had been exposed, instead telling us only about the proactive testing program. (“We are looking at whether we can do this in a way that adds information without creating additional confusion,” said Bird, the UT spokesperson.) And we know that when the university required students to take a COVID test to get into the football game, it found a lot of it.
In a statement on the Texas Athletics website, UT’s director of athletics, Chris Del Conte, insisted that the school’s “priority is to create the safest gameday environment for our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, fans, staff, and visiting teams,” stressing the planning the university had put into the event. Fans were required to wear masks, for example, though enforcement of that policy appears to have been lax. And, as we acknowledge the unknowns around COVID-19 and Texas college football, we should acknowledge that one of those open questions is whether these games will turn into super-spreader events or not.
“There’s a lot of random chance involved in the spread of this disease,” Bachynski told me. “It is possible that you can gather lots of people and not have a super-spreader event, and my hope is that this is one of those examples. You can not wear a seatbelt and not get in a car crash—not every example of risky decision-making will result in a poor outcome.” But there’ll be more games, over more weekends, played in more stadiums around the state, and—outside of platitudes like Del Conte’s “It is more important now than ever that we remain united as one with our horns held high”—the biggest question is why all of these schools are continuing to take the public health risk of playing football in front of a crowd of fans, six months into a global pandemic.