Nearly half a million defiant bikers and an aging ’90s band couldn’t fend off the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Dakota last month, where the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally likely spread thousands of new coronavirus cases across the United States, according to a report.
Cellphone and coronavirus case data suggest that the 10-day rally held in Sturgis, S.D., last month was a “superspreading event” that may have caused up to 260,000 new infections in the United States, according to the report from researchers at San Diego State University’s Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies.
It’s the largest estimated case toll yet from the rally, and the findings have not yet been verified by health officials and experts who have been trying to map the spread for weeks.
The report authors say the event was a “worst-case scenario” for spreading the virus. A vast majority of the 460,000 attendees came from out of town, few people wore masks, many packed closely together in large crowds, and social distancing was not widely enforced, according to the media reports at the time.
Researchers say it likely didn’t help that the band Smash Mouth, which headlined a concert at the rally, seemed to sneer at coronavirus safety measures.
“Now we’re all here together tonight, and we’re being human once again,” Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell said during a performance at the rally. “F— that COVID s—.”
The anonymous cellphone data showed people’s locations in Sturgis throughout the event. Researchers saw hundreds of thousands of out-of-towners flooding into the community, which is typically home to just 7,000 people. They also observed high foot traffic at bars and restaurants, a spike in hotel and campground visitors and a surge in locals setting foot outside their homes.
The report authors estimated the spread of the virus by comparing the out-of-town traffic to new case data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) following the event.
“We find that the Sturgis Rally caused spread of COVID-19 cases both locally and in the home counties of those who travelled to the Sturgis Rally and returned home,” they wrote.
The report estimates that new cases from the event will cost the public health system about US$12.2 billion, based on a per-case cost estimate.
“Even though the event benefited South Dakota economically, the majority of the health cost is being borne by the rest of the country,” report co-author Andrew Friedson told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, dismissed the report on Tuesday as “fiction” and an “attack” on people who “exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis.”
Noem had previously welcomed the event, which typically brings in about US$800 million in tourist dollars, according to the state’s Department of Tourism. She has also railed against mandatory mask rules in recent months.
“Predictably, some in the media breathlessly report on this non-peer-reviewed model, built on incredibly faulty assumptions that do not reflect the actual facts and data here in South Dakota,” Noem said.
South Dakota had the second-highest per-capita number of new cases in the U.S. as of Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. The state has identified 124 infections among residents who attended the Sturgis rally, while health officials in 12 other states have identified about 300 attendees who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Fifty rally attendees had tested positive for the virus and one had died in California as of last week, state officials reported. Another Sturgis attendee went back to Minnesota and died last week, health officials in that state reported.
Contact tracers have been trying to estimate the full impact of the rally for weeks.
One analysis of cellphone data suggests that 61 per cent of all U.S. counties have been visited by someone who attended the Sturgis rally, the Associated Press reports. The impact was similar to the spread of people from a major U.S. travel hub, according to Camber Systems, which analyzed the data for health researchers.
“Imagine trying to do contact tracing for the entire city of (Washington), D.C., but you also know that you don’t have any distancing, or the distancing is very, very limited, the masking is limited,” said Navin Vembar, who co-founded Camber Systems. “It all adds up to a very dangerous situation for people all over the place. Contact tracing becomes dramatically difficult.”
The San Diego State University report was conducted with data from SafeGraph, another company that collects anonymous cellphone location data.
Gov. Noem announced on Tuesday that she is spending $5 million from a federal coronavirus relief fund on a new tourism campaign to bring people to South Dakota.
“With our breathtaking landscapes and wide-open spaces, we’re a place to explore,” Noem says in the ad, which first aired on Fox News.
“Celebrate what makes America great, and experience the great faces and great places of South Dakota.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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—With files from The Associated Press and Reuters