Join the crowd? Local doctors discuss full stadiums, whether they’re safe

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, September 8, 2021

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Over the weekend, football stadiums across the country were at full capacity — people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder cheering on their teams. It was a completely different scene than 2020, when many stadiums were completely empty and others had limited capacity.

But is it safe to sit in close proximity with thousands of people as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on?

“Eventually, we’re going to have to get back to mass events and things like that,” said Dr. Kenneth Gordon of LaGrange Internal Medicine. “Right now is really not the best time, but if a person has been vaccinated fully — they’re two weeks after their second shot, and they’re basically healthy — I think that they could be doing mass events. They should still be taking all the precautions.”

Gordon noted that his thoughts on large gatherings really shows the change in how experts are thinking about COVID-19. Herd immunity — that enough individuals would be vaccinated or exposed to the virus to limit spread to the rest of the population — has been the end goal for a while, but Gordon said that thought has evolved as the virus continues to spread.

“The thinking is now shifting to that everybody is inevitably going to get COVID. And with that sort of thinking, then the idea becomes, ‘well when I do get exposed to it, what’s going to happen?’’ Gordon said.

Gordon said that’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated, as statistics and research continue to prove it’s the best way to be protected against the virus. As of Tuesday, 91% of COVID patients at Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center were unvaccinated.

“The easy answer is just to say no [to large gatherings], but the things you want to be able to make sure you’re doing, whether you’re vaccinated or not, is masking,” said Ken Horlander, a pulmonary and critical care doctor who works at Emory at LaGrange and Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center. “It is a little safer if you’re truly outdoors, but if you get into a cramped space even outdoors, you’re still at risk.”

Gordon said people should wear masks, use hand sanitizer frequently and wash their hands if they are attending a big event, such as a football game or a concert.  Like Horlander, he also said outdoor events are much safer than indoor events.

“Outdoor events are much more ventilated than any indoor events and so outdoor events are much preferred,” he said.

Horlander said it’s important to remember that anyone can catch COVID-19, vaccinated or not.

“That’s been true forever. It’s like the flu shot doesn’t protect you from catching the flu. It just helps your body to fight,” he said.

Horlander also recommended good hand hygiene, so washing hands and using hand sanitizer, and wearing a mask. But both doctors said being vaccinated is the best way to have protection, as it’ll lessen the severity of symptoms if you do happen to catch a breakthrough case of COVID-19.

“I think if somebody was unvaccinated going to a sporting event, I think they’re just asking for trouble,” Gordon said. “I wouldn’t dare walk into a stadium with 80,000 or 90,000 people unvaccinated.”

David Evert is fully vaccinated, and he’s also had COVID-19, so he felt comfortable going to watch his alma mater, Northern Illinois, upset Georgia Tech in Atlanta Saturday.

“My point of view is we are going to have to learn to live with COVID to some degree, so, you do as many things as you can to play it safe.” Evert said. “We were outside and I felt safer outside than I do going to Walmart with all those people inside.”

Evert said most people weren’t wearing masks at the game.

“Were a lot of people wearing masks? No, they weren’t,” Evert said. “But again, I feel like be as safe as you can, and if it’s not going away, you’ve got to find a way to live your life.”

Levi Evans said he’s fully vaccinated and went to the Alabama-Miami game on Saturday in Atlanta.

“I’ve yet to get COVID,” Evans said. “So, I haven’t really been concerned about COVID at all.”

Evans said that roughly 90% of the people at the game were not wearing masks.

Gordon tracks cases locally and had LaGrange at 999 new cases over the last three weeks, meaning over 1% of the community has had COVID-19 in that timeframe.

“Case wise we are at historic high levels of COVID in the community,” he said.

Neither Gordon or Horlander recommend taking unvaccinated children — meaning all kids under 12, who cannot yet get the vaccine — to any kind of large gathering such as a sporting event.

“I would try to hold off on having kids less than 12 years old go to mass events right now,” Gordon said. “I think that would that would be prudent.”

Horlander said many of the patients he sees who get really sick with COVID say that they regret not getting the vaccine.

“The vast majority. I would say everybody is saying that right now,” he said.

He said he’s had three patients who were vaccinated die from COVID-19, and all of them were immunosuppressed due to another condition.

He said being obese or overweight is a major risk factor for all when it comes to COVID-19.

Gordon said people need to realize that getting the vaccine isn’t a one-day process, so putting it off is a bad idea. There are three to four weeks between doses, plus it takes another two weeks after the last dose to be completely vaccinated.

“I think people need to understand that the best time that they could have been vaccinated was two months ago,” he said. “And the next best time they could get it done is today or tomorrow.”