COVID transmission study suggests outdoor events are ‘likely to be very safe’

Good news from parkrun before June restart

Just over a month before they are due to restart in England, a new study has confirmed the low risk of catching – or passing on – coronavirus at a parkrun event.

The 'groundbreaking' study, commissioned by parkrun and developed by Professor Clive Beggs of Queen Mary, University of London, used publicly available data published by the Office for National Statistics.

Working with the vaccination and virus prevalence rates from March 2021, the data suggested that if parkruns had been operating last month, on average, ‘at 30% of events there would not have been be an infectious person present, and at events where an infectious person did participate, there would have been an average R value of only 0.057’.

Using those figures, Professor Beggs ran 10,000 computer model simulations of an average 263-person parkrun event, using ‘worst-reasonable-case estimates for number and duration of human contacts’. The result: only 0.015% of runners ‘potentially acquiring a COVID-19 infection’.

Professor Beggs’ study also suggests – contrary to current belief – that the already low risk of infection from attending a parkrun or other running event is even lower at the start line than during the run itself.

This unexpected finding is likely due to participants’ ‘lower breathing rates’ and relatively short period of time they spend together before, rather than during, a run. 

Professor Beggs’ findings call into question the need for staggered or wave starts, especially where other procedures are in place to reduce the time participants spend together while not running. The study also challenges the conclusions of an earlier wind tunnel study which suggested that the virus could be spread to runners directly behind those infected.

In Professor Beggs’ view, that earlier study did not take into account the ‘real-life’ conditions of an outdoor event, like breezes or runners disrupting the air flow by changing position, and thus represented an unrealistic worst-case scenario. At a real-life event, Beggs concluded, the risks of transmission would be much lower.

Commenting on his findings, Professor Beggs said: “Our analysis was undertaken using COVID-19 prevalence levels for March 2021, and the results revealed that parkrun events are likely to be very safe. This finding appears to be supported by the evidence from the various road races that have been held around the world during the pandemic, which have been characterised by a noticeable lack of infectious outbreaks.”

He concluded: “Based on this, it would seem to me that running events are probably already safe in the UK, and getting safer every day as prevalence falls and the vaccine rollout continues.”

Nick Pearson Chief Executive Officer at parkrun said: “I believe the implications of this report are huge for how we view the risks associated with running events and outdoor sport in general. The chances of any infection at all taking place at organised, risk assessed, outdoor events are in fact minimal, even with up to a few thousand participants.”
He added: “The benefits, particularly now, of getting active, together, far outweigh the close-to-zero risk of virus transmission in outdoor settings. As we look toward the summer, it is vital that we do everything we can to welcome back parkrun events, and get the nation back on its feet, positively impacting the health and happiness of ourselves, our friends, our family, and those around us.”

With dozens of junior events already on the go, parkrun’s 5k run are due to restart in England on Saturday, 5 June. Although parkrun say there has been ‘positive progress’ in the other home nations, there is currently no word on when they will be restarting in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Image courtesy: parkrun

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