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Minnesota epidemiologist warns hockey 'is probably the riskiest' sport to spread COVID-19

An epidemiologist in Minnesota considers hockey arenas to be a high-risk setting for COVID-19 spread.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says hockey arenas pose a moderate-to-high risk of spreading COVID-19. (istock)

An epidemiologist in Minnesota considers hockey arenas to be a high-risk setting for COVID-19 spread.

"I think this is a moderate-to-high risk and I've made that clear," said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"I obviously can't tell them to close down their ice skating rinks but I think that for hockey, I think of all the sports, this is probably the riskiest."

Osterholm, a former Minnesota state epidemiologist, said years ago there were cases of hockey players with lung disease after breathing in fumes emitted by the ice-resurfacing machines, which used to be powered by propane.

In the past, there was also at least one documented outbreak of measles linked to hockey arenas, he added.

"Ventilation in ice skating rinks used for hockey actually traps the air in that area so it doesn't rise or dissipate," Osterholm said. "What became very clear is that this is a way in where to concentrate an infectious agent, like a virus, in someone who's playing with the increased breathing that's occurring."

Hockey Northwestern Ontario announced this week it was allowing minor hockey associations to start playing games on Nov. 1, under the informal competition portion of its return to play framework. The organization had allowed on-ice activity, which was limited to skill development and practices.

Osterholm said, just because the National Hockey League was able to complete its playoff campaign without any players testing positive, it shouldn't be viewed as a sign that hockey is safe.

He said the NHL was able to do that because it administered frequent testing and played in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

"We're seeing all kinds of outbreaks in high school, in colleges, associated with sports besides hockey," Osterholm said. "The virus is live and present right now in individuals who might be playing sports."

"You can't extrapolate what happened with [professional sports leagues] in any way to the general public and what might happen to the rest of the population."

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