Proms are the latest superspreader events

A group of high school students pose together ahead of their prom on May 20, 2022, in Brooklyn, New York.
A group of high school students pose together ahead of their prom on May 20, 2022, in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, proms and other school dances were banned, held remotely or heavily restricted in many areas of the country. But, now that the country is returning to some sense of normalcy, proms are back — and many have become superspreader events.

News has poured in from across the country of proms leading to an uptick in local COVID-19 cases.

In Sacramento, Calif., 50 positive COVID-19 cases were identified between April 21 and May 5 that were linked to the C. K. McClatchy High School junior prom. Sacramento City Unified School District spokesperson Alexander Goldberg tells Yahoo Life that at least 21 of the new cases attended the prom. "However, due to the high numbers of overlapping social and school contacts, it is difficult to determine where transmission happens," Goldberg says.

Junior prom attendees were required to either provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test at the prom and masking was "strongly encouraged," Goldberg says.

The district has since issued new COVID Large Indoor Extracurricular guidance that requires all attendees of large indoor events — regardless of vaccination status — to have a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the event for masking to be optional. "COVID continues to spread in Sacramento County, as indicated by the CDC community levels, and we continue to do all we can to safely conduct these important events," Goldberg says.

San Mateo High School in San Mateo, Calif., "experienced a COVID outbreak following its prom" in April, Laura B. Chalkley, manager of communications for San Mateo Union High School District, tells Yahoo Life. "Nearly 600 students attended the prom, and nearly 90 students who attended this event tested positive for COVID-19," Chalkley says. "Masks were 'strongly recommended' at this event, per current public health guidelines in the City of San Francisco; However, many students chose not to wear a mask at this event."

After the outbreak, the district notified families and high school students about the cases "and continued offering testing and increased to daily COVID testing in the weeks following the prom," Chalkley says.

Juneau, Alaska's Juneau Douglas High School saw a jump in new COVID-19 cases after prom, where masks were optional, Bridget Weiss, superintendent of the Juneau School District, tells Yahoo Life.

"Prom was coupled with several activities — travel trips [for] spring sports — right before prom," Weiss says, adding that she's "not sure if it was the combination of the two, but we had quite a few cases following." In the week after prom, the district saw 36 new COVID cases, with 23 of those who tested positive attending the prom, she says.

North Carolina's Durham School of the Arts saw 83 new cases of COVID-19 after its school prom, according to WRAL, noting that district officials said in a statement that it's "unclear" why the school had such an increase in cases when it followed the same safety protocols as other schools in the district. "Student gatherings after the prom or outside of school may have also played a role," the statement said. A district spokesperson did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Students at Leavenworth, Washington's Cascade High School were required to mask up indoors after a COVID-19 outbreak at their school linked to prom, according to NCW Life. “The guidance that we received is that by masking through the end of this week, we can help curtail this latest episode,” an email from school officials sent to families and students obtained by the news outlet reads. “This includes bussing to and from school and athletics, while in a vehicle.” A district spokesperson did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Infectious disease experts aren't shocked that proms have been linked to an uptick in COVID-19 cases. "Proms are usually indoors, involve a lot of people and consist of close contact, so it’s not surprising to see COVID-19 cases linked to them," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. Still, he points out, "COVID-19 cases can be linked to any type of social interaction."

Prom has "all the elements to facilitate the spread of COVID," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "They're usually indoors with a large number of people that are in close contact — in some circumstances, very close contact — for a prolonged period of time," Russo continues. Most school districts have done away with mask mandates, and many students aren't masking up at these dances, Russo points out.

"This is a population that's been under-vaccinated," he adds. Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) show that just 58% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. have completed their two-dose series of the COVID-19 vaccine. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that nearly 77% of people aged 18 and up in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

While most students that attend prom are likely in school together, Russo says that the dance has "even more close contact thanks to dancing and slow dancing." He also points out that fast dancing can generate "even more respiratory secretions than if you were sitting at a desk," raising the likelihood that more people will be infected if someone at prom has COVID-19.

Adalja notes that there is COVID risk with attending prom that is unlikely to go away. "If you want to attend a prom, there will always be a COVID-19 risk associated with them," he says. "People have to acclimatize to the risk because this and other respiratory viruses are always going to be present."

Russo admits that it's a "tough decision" for people to make. "There's no question that this is an event that carries a certain degree of risk," he says. "But I fully appreciate that prom is a very important event for most individuals at this age and is not to be missed."

Russo points out that the end of the school year includes many events that come with their own COVID-19 risk, including graduation and related celebrations. He recommends that people take "more caution indoors than outdoors," like wearing a high-quality mask, adding that there should be "increased caution for the vulnerable," like grandparents and those who are immunocompromised. "Post-graduation parties may be even riskier," he says. Russo also stresses the importance of being fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot when you're eligible.

"The best advice is to go ahead and make sure that you're vaccinated and up to date in your vaccines," Russo says. "That will minimize the likelihood that you'll land in the hospital and have a bad outcome if you do happen to become infected. Vaccination is still the best means to protect yourself."

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.