By Jasleen Arneja, Maia Majumder, The Daily Best/Yahoo | In western South Dakota’s Meade County, more than one in three COVID-19 tests are currently returning positive, and over the last three weeks, seven-day average case counts have increased by 3,400 percent. This exponential growth in cases is likely attributable to the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew an estimated half a million visitors to Meade County and its environs from Aug. 6 through 15, potentially acting as a superspreader event.
The pandemic is surging nationally, not just proximal to biker chaos in South Dakota. Defined in large part by the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant, the United States is experiencing its fourth surge of COVID-19 right now, and our nationwide case counts have increased by 64.4 percent over the last 21 days.
But while Southern states have been the main drivers of this surge thus far, the recent spike in cases in South Dakota warrants special concern.
The state more broadly has witnessed a 686.8 percent increase in daily case counts over the past three weeks, currently more than 10 times the nationwide rate.
> > > > > > > > > >
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally represents the perfect storm for a superspreader event across this region: a large gathering with no testing, no masks, and no vaccination requirements. Though many (but not all) of the goings-on occurred outdoors and thus offered more protection against SARS-CoV-2 transmission than if they hadn’t been, the South Dakota Department of Transportation reported that 525,768 vehicles entered Sturgis over the 10 days of the rally. The sheer number of people in attendance paired with a lack of additional precautions presented prime conditions for viral transmission.
> > > > > > > > > >
New infections are strongly associated with vaccination rates across the country, and are an important factor when considering why some large events have been posited as superspreaders, while others have not been.
Take Lollapalooza, for instance. The largely (but not entirely) outdoor four-day music festival in Chicago was held July 29 through Aug. 1, but catered to a very different demographic than the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Despite hosting over 100,000 individuals on each day of the festival, all signs suggest that Lollapalooza didn’t result in a superspreader event. This may be thanks to the fact that Lollapalooza organizers – working in active partnership the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) – required either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to attendance, and 90 percent of attendees were fully vaccinated. Moreover, masks were required in indoor spaces for the last two days of the event (once more, under the advisement of the CDPH).
Sometimes referred to as “the Swiss cheese model of pandemic defense”, preventive measures like testing, masks, and vaccination act together to protect against infection and perform best in combination than any one of them does alone. It’s a reality that may have spared Lollapalooza from becoming a superspreader event—and could have done the same for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, had political will allowed for it.
Unlike Lollapalooza, which was guided by health officials in enacting and enforcing a multi-layered COVID-19 safety protocol, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally took place in a state where government has been largely apathetic in its pandemic response. In late July, mere weeks prior to the rally she attended herself, Gov. Kristi Noem went so far as to say that she had “no plans” to encourage vaccination among her constituents.
> > > > > > > > > >
“These viruses mutate,” Weiland, who fled the state for pandemic-ravaged Florida during the rally, told The Daily Beast, before comparing the rise of variants to cannibalistic killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
“Jeff Dahmer was a mutation. It’s going to be worse.”
—with reporting by Tom Lawrence in South Dakota