The science behind the sports “bubble” and why it works

Published: Apr. 2, 2021 at 12:19 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 2, 2021 at 5:50 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The concept of creating a bubble amid the COVID-19 pandemic is what has gotten teams this far in the NCAA tournament. The NBA and MLS both adopted a bubble model during their 2020 seasons.

Just one team in the men’s tournament, VCU, has been taken out due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer, Dr. Jeff Pothof, says for the bubble to work, everyone must play by the rules. There’s typically daily COVID-19 testing, sometimes requiring multiple negative tests in a row, to enter the bubble.

“One player who skirts the rules and does something and brings COVID back to the bubble could really doom the entire NCAA tournament. It requires 100% participation in these mitigation efforts or you increase pretty substantially the chance that the whole thing falls apart,” said Dr. Pothof.

Players must isolate in hotel rooms, they do not eat community meals and they don’t leave the bubble, among many other precautions.

If someone does test positive, aggressive contact tracing is needed to mitigate spread.

“In an attempt to try to remove them from the bubble before they have time to have that virus start growing in their nasal fairings and also be contagious. If you’re quick to pull the trigger on that and you identify that person who is positive, then you remove anyone who that person came into contact with, then you have a pretty good chance of stomping out disease before it can actually start spreading,” told Dr. Pothof.

It takes a lot of resources, time, and money, but when done properly, the bubble appears to be effective.

“I think what we’re finding is that if you can execute a bubble effectively like that, it does actually prevent transmission of COVID-19. It allows us to carry out these activities. No one is saying that it’s easy or that it’s not resource intense, but once you do all those things, it seems to work.”

Dr. Pothof wants to remind people of the efforts and resources pooled into created a successful bubble when thinking about local sports and events.

“I don’t want people to see the NCAA doing this and then making the extrapolation that then their local sporting team or event must be as safe, because the NCAA did it,” he warned.

The bubble concept also puts a spotlight on how one person’s actions can impact multiple other people, Dr. Pothof said, especially when dealing with infectious diseases.

“All of us kind of function in the same community and actions that some of us take absolutely effect other people’s lives. I just think it’s more on display, more highlighted right now with COVID and specifically these tournaments, than we typically realize just going through our daily lives,” said Dr. Pothof.

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