What is a Super Spreader Event?

Mask surrounded by party decor

Thanksgiving dinner, summer barbeques, campaign rallies, indoor church services, weddings. Gatherings of all kinds have the potential to become “super spreader events” where even a single COVID-19 infection can turn into a larger outbreak amongst attendees and their wider communities.

But why have normal gatherings become such dangerous super spreader events? And what can you do to avoid them?

The term “super spreader” is hard to define, but if you consider that normal transmission rates between family members is around 20 percent, and that the average person with COVID-19 generally transmits the infection to two to three people, a super spreader event occurs when rates of transmission are higher due to a combination of the amount of virus carried by the infected individual and the environmental conditions.

A good example of why normal events can become super spreader events comes from a 2.5-hour choir practice that took place in Skagit County, Washington in March 2020. After the practice attended by 61 people, 32 people had confirmed COVID-19 cases and 20 more people were probable cases (not including the family members and larger communities that these people went home to). Two people died and three were hospitalized. This is a much higher transmission rate than we would expect under normal conditions.

Major Factors

How could something as commonplace as choir practice turn into such a dangerous event? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that the disease may spread more efficiently through the air in certain situations such as when people were standing in close proximity (within six feet), indoors, with no masks or protective wear and the ventilation of an area is not optimal. They were also singing, which projects respiratory droplets further and helps spread the disease.

A small rural wedding in Maine in August 2020 caused a similar outbreak in the surrounding community and long-term care facilities that led to eight deaths, and many hospitalizations. None of those who were hospitalized or died attended the wedding but had contact with those who did. This underscores the importance of avoiding occasions that could turn into super spreader events.

Why Your Bubble Isn’t Perfect

Many think that family events like birthday parties, Thanksgiving, or holiday events are safe because of the family “bubble” or pod. However, most people don’t fully comprehend what is required to create a safe bubble.

With extended family, it is impossible to know if family members have gone to a grocery store, eaten at a restaurant, seen a neighbor who they deem as non-exposed and uninfected, or attended a group event within 14 days of the family gathering. It is impossible to keep track of the contacts of family members who do not live with you. They may not have completely isolated themselves from other people or always followed prevention measures, which could put the entire gathering at risk.

How to Keep Yourself Safe

  1. If at all possible, avoid going to or holding gatherings with those outside of your immediate household.
  2. Always wear masks and maintain physical distance when outside of your home or with those not from your immediate household, even if you are outdoors.
  3. If you find yourself at a large gathering and are concerned, consider getting tested three days later (any sooner and you may not get an accurate result).
  4. Consider self-quarantining after the event for 14 days and wearing masks around household members.
  5. Get vaccinated against COVID-19 whenever you qualify.