COVID-19 cases rise after Sturgis motorcycle rally

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More than half a million people attended the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota last month. Scott Olson / Getty Images
  • COVID-19 cases in South Dakota have increased since the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally ended on August 15.
  • However, health experts say it can be difficult to measure exactly how many cases are directly linked to the event attended by more than 500,000 people.
  • They say security protocols must be in place at all major public gatherings, including college football games this fall.

The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally drew an estimated 525,000 people over a 10-day period in the small town of Stugis in rural Meade County, South Dakota.

The event took place August 6-15 amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and a recent increase in cases due to the Delta variant.

There were no rules requiring the use of face masks or physical distancing between participants.

Now, in the weeks since the rally began, COVID-19 cases in South Dakota have risen sharply, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

The 7-day average of COVID-19 cases in the state was 54 on August 6. In September, it stood at 434.

Meade County is now considered a COVID-19 hotspot, with a more than 100% increase in cases over the past 2 weeks. The Associated Press reports that contact tracers from five states recorded 178 cases of COVID-19 among people who attended the 2021 rally.

This is not the first time that the Sturgis rally has been linked to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have traced at least 649 cases to the event in 2020. Another study by economists who tracked data from the cell phones of rally participants estimated that the The event could have been responsible for up to 266,000 cases.

It is unclear, however, whether the recent spike in cases and the 2021 rally are related.

Doug Schultz, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Public Health, told Healthline that 24 Minnesota residents were identified as likely to have developed COVID-19 during the Sturgis rally.

“Anytime people are in large gatherings, and especially if they are not vaccinated, wearing masks or practicing social distancing, there is an increased risk of the virus spreading,” Schultz noted .

However, he added, “the impact of a single event like this on the total number of cases is difficult, if not impossible to assess, given that the SARS CoV-2 virus and the Delta variant still circulate widely in our communities. “

“Sturgis had everything it needed for a super broadcast event and that seems to be what happened,” Brian Castrucci, DrPH, epidemiologist and CEO of the Beaumont Foundation, an organization, told Healthline. defense of public health.

“What’s alarming about Sturgis is the challenge: ‘We know there’s this risk, but we’re going to do it anyway.’ They could have had a mask warrant or vaccination requirements, ”Castrucci said. “What we were hoping for was that the organizers would have met with public health experts and discussed how to organize the event while minimizing the risks.”

“We had already ‘learned’ the lessons of the Sturgis rally last year when it caused epidemics across the country,” Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline. . “We obviously haven’t adopted the basic concepts.”

“When a large number of unvaccinated, unmasked people congregate tightly for a week, that’s the recipe for a super-spreading event. The lesson is not to allow such events to happen, ”he said.

However, Daniel C. Bucheli, communications director for the South Dakota Department of Health, told Healthline that “COVID-19 spikes follow a national trend seen in all states, not just South Dakota. This is similar to the same pattern we saw in last year’s season, and cases are increasing nationwide considering the Delta variant. “

Bucheli said South Dakota officials are “not concerned” about the long-term impact of the Sturgis rally on public health in South Dakota.

“Whenever large crowds gather there is a potential for the virus to spread,” he said. “To date, we have only linked 66 cases of COVID-19 to participation in the Sturgis Rally. Given that this event hosted well over 500,000 participants, we believe that increased awareness of COVID-19 and the use of mitigation strategies worked – this, in addition to having vaccines and tests easily. available during the event. “

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem criticized the 2020 studies linking the Sturgis rally to the spread of COVID-19 and defended the 2021 event, telling Fox News: “We’re just allowing people to do personal choices and having personal responsibility for when they want to get together, when they want to get together and spend time outdoors, and enjoy their way of life.

Noem also attended the 2021 rally, participating – vaccinated, but unmasked – in a charity race.

“Any government official who cares about the health of their people would not want this kind of event in their state,” Castrucci said.

On the flip side, he noted, the Sturgis rally should not come under criticism as other important and risky events take place as well.

This includes the celebratory rally in July for the Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA Championship or Penn State’s next football game, which will be played in front of a large crowd at Beaver Stadium this weekend with no vaccinations or COVID-19 testing required from fans. . Masks will be compulsory in indoor locations.

“It is important not to play in the politicization of the pandemic,” said Castrucci. “There is nothing unique about Sturgis per se. If this was a ballet recital attended by Democrats, it would be the same situation.

“Any event involving a large number of people without a mask warrant or vaccination requirement is really just throwing gas on the fire,” he said. “As long as we describe this as a political problem and not as a public health problem, more [the pandemic] keep on going.”

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