CHAMPAIGN — Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois computer science professor, projected last week that there will be multiple deaths and thousands of COVID-19 infections in the population of about 13,000 college football players if the NCAA continues forward with its currently scheduled FBS season.
Jacobson told CBS Sports that his model shows that between 30 and 50 percent of FBS players will contract the virus, while three to seven players would be expected to die.
A professor at Illinois since 1999, Jacobson has long been modeling elections and other statistical data, including what may have occurred had the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament not been canceled due to the pandemic.
Modeling COVID-19 deaths and infections has higher stakes, and Jacobson emphasized that his model should be used as a baseline rather than prophecy.
"I don't claim to have a crystal ball that I can look into the hearts of every college player to see how well they're going to behave or get infected," Jacobson said. "Sometimes, it's out of their control. So I put in a range, I created a scenario."
"This is new terrain for all of us," he continued. "You can build models and projections, but there are dozens of models out there projecting how many cases we’re going to have, and they’ve all been all over the place and for the most part, wrong."
Frankly, Jacobson hopes he is wrong, too. But his projections should rightfully cause alarm, with national COVID-19 infections spiking and less than two months remaining until the scheduled start of college football.
Illinois has decided not to release any public testing results about its student-athletes.
The school is also one of several, including Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana, Georgia Tech and Washington State, that has asked players to sign documents that resemble liability waivers before returning to voluntary workouts, according to reports from USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
Jacobson said that there is not enough data being shared among universities and with the public about infections and testing results, which could potentially be harmful to assessments about safety and spread of the virus.
"You have to share things because we’re writing the how-to guide for opening universities in real time," Jacobson said. "We’re writing the how-to guide to how to start intercollegiate sports in real time. And in all these things, nobody felt like there's a manual you can pick up and say, ‘Okay, how are we going to open up college sports this fall into COVID-19?’ That book doesn’t exist."
Although the state of Illinois has not seen dramatic spikes in cases, like Texas, Arizona, Florida and some other southern states, Jacobson believes there are still too many unknowns that are not being accounted for ahead of the season.
"The only way to be able to help each other, for every university to help each other, is to share openly the information," he said. "It would be ideal if the NCAA had a repository of information that would be fed to them and could be collected off the website. People like myself, who do data science, we can do analysis and help people, but we can only help to the degree that we have access to data."
Jacobson and Dr. Janet A. Jokela, the acting regional dean of the Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign, also recently published an op-ed in The Hill, which poses three main questions as colleges across the United States announce their plans for in-person instruction.
Those questions ask universities to define risk, determine how to mitigate and manage risk and make plans to cooperate and collaborate for in-person planning instead of compete against each other. Jacobson also believes that it would be unethical to play a college football season if universities are not open for in-person instruction, arguing that it would significantly elevate the risk of student-athletes when compared to regular students.
"If we go completely online and only let the student-athletes continue to play their sports, then they are going to be on campus with all the risks associated with that," Jacobson said. "Even though there will be far less people on campus for them to interact with, there will still be travel. There will still be the interactions when they place sports and they will be interacting with more people. They will be at an elevated risk."
The death rates for both college students and student-athletes are believed to be quite low for COVID-19, and of course, the vast majority of deaths nationwide have been for people over the age of 60.
But that doesn’t account for young people who have underlying health conditions, regardless of their physical condition. And it also doesn’t mean that young people and student-athletes would not still face significant danger with an infection, with lingering effects and long recoveries still often present, according to Jacobson.
"The people who are learning online, they won’t have that risk," he said. "That’s why, whatever decision you make, you want to make sure that students are uniformly in a range of risk that is quite narrow. Once you start to partition the student body into higher and lower risk exposure, that’s when the ethics come into play."
Jacobson believes it is inevitable that the Champaign-Urbana area, as well as virtually every other college town in the United States, will see a spike in COVID-19 cases if and when students begin to return to campuses.
Even in hybrid models that limit interactions, incorporate social distancing and mandate that larger classes be taught online, the increase in area population densities that go hand-in-hand with universities will lead to higher rates of transmission.
Jacobson said that although Illinois -- and metro areas within the state, like Chicago, St. Louis and even Champaign-Urbana -- have had marginal success in bending the curve, it may become undone.
"We’re no better and no worse than anybody else," he said. "It looks like because Chicago has a lower rate of infections that we should be better off, but the disease is transmitted from person to person. That's how it survives, and that is directly proportional to the density of people. Chicago is a big city with a high density of people. You’re going to continue to have the virus circulating.
"A whole bunch of those people are going to come to Champaign-Urbana in around six weeks."
Champaign County is currently in its deadliest stretch of the pandemic, with the C-U Public Health District announcing its fourth death in the county in the last four days on Tuesday.
Jacobson believes the current return to in-person instruction and athletic competitions will have wide-reaching effects that will span the entire community, even if adjustments are made and football and other sports are pushed to the spring.
"We’re going to have a density which is quite high, and we're going to have a massive spike of cases in our area among the students, and this will go on for several weeks," Jacobson said. "So as long as it stays within the students and doesn't spread to at risk populations, it’s not an issue. The question is, can it be controlled in that way? That is the challenge, it’s something nobody knows. So are we better or worse off?
"I think we’re all in this together, and all we have to do is continue to move forward and understand the consequences of the decisions as best we can, realizing there will be unexpected consequences there."
Gavin Good is the University of Illinois correspondent for Gannett Illinois. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/itsallG_O_O_D.