The Dangers of Superspreader Events

Friday, June 5, 2020

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has substantially impacted how nearly every business is conducted, with quarantine procedures only starting to ease in New York. The current plan of government officials is to slowly reopen the state to minimize the spread of the coronavirus while still allowing the state’s economy to return to relative normalcy. However, they fear the possibility of so-called “superspreader” events undoing the hard work that has been done to contain the coronavirus up to this point.

               The term “superspreader” refers to certain locations or events where an infectious disease (such as the coronavirus) is highly likely to spread among large numbers of people, resulting in potential spikes in infections. This includes anywhere that people congregate near one another, making social distancing difficult, and particularly anywhere people engage in physical exertion, raising the risk of contact with contaminated surfaces or bodily fluids. Even praying or protesting in the same space can be risky, as air expelled from the lungs during singing or shouting can spread the virus as easily as coughing or sneezing. Epidemiologists refer to this as the “80/20 rule:” 20% of infected people are responsible for 80% of transmissions.

There are several kinds of locations that have been identified as ideal superspreader events for the coronavirus. It is probably not surprising to hear that medical facilities, particularly nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospitals, are often high-risk sites for infections, but more mundane activities can also result in superspreader events. This includes, but is not limited to, sports, concerts, religious gatherings, protests, and parties. Meat-packing plants and ships at sea are also prone to become sites for superspreaders, due to people being forced to work in close quarters with limited opportunity for social distancing.

Many businesses are aware of this and have adapted to try to avoid superspreader scenarios. For example, several sports leagues are planning to reopen without anyone in the stands, while churches have begun conducting services online. However, not every business is able to adapt in this way, and some fear that the economic pressure to reopen will, in some cases, overwhelm the fear of spreading infection. To avoid this risk, people should take care to avoid potential superspreader events, both for themselves and for the people around them.