South Dakota is seeing Covid-19 cases skyrocket two weeks after about 700,000 people flooded Meade County for the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a 10-day event that officials say was one of its biggest in years.
The South Dakota Department of Health reported 657 cases on August 4 – two days before the rally started – and 3,655 cases on August 25, representing a 456% increase. Meade County, where the rally took place, is now reporting a 36% positivity rate, meaning that about one in every three COVID tests come back positive.
The week leading up to the rally, July 30 to August 6, the state’s weekly positivity rate was at about 10% and the week before that, July 23 to 30, the positivity rate was just 6%, the Department of Health data shows.
Covid cases in South Dakota rose from 657 on August 4 to 3,655 cases on August 25 following the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that began on August 6
Meade County is now reporting a 36 percent positivity rate, meaning that about one in every three Covid tests come back positive
The event kicked off on August 6 with motorcycle enthusiasts packed shoulder-to-shoulder at bars with most not wearing masks. The event had no vaccine test requirements and no mask mandates.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem rode into the rally on August 9 as part of the Sturgis Buffalo Chip Legends Ride.
The Republican governor has staunchly voiced her opposition to coronavirus restrictions like vaccine passports and slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, after he warned of the potential for the rally to cause a spike in cases.
Of the rally, Fauci said, ‘I mean, to me it’s understandable that people want to do the kinds of things they want to do. They want their freedom to do that. But there comes a time when you’re dealing with a public health crisis that could involve you, your family and everyone else, that something supersedes that need to do exactly what you want to do.’
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem rode into the rally on August 9 as part of the Sturgis Buffalo Chip Legends Ride
Noem arrived at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip campground after riding in the Legends Ride
Noem has staunchly voiced her opposition to coronavirus restrictions like vaccine passports and none were required at the rally
In response, Noem accused Fauci of targeting the South Dakota event rather than other causes of infection spikes.
She said, ‘I was not surprised to see Dr. Fauci pick on Sturgis. He picked on it last year, this rally as well, and honestly, I wish he cared more about the Southern Border and what we have going on there with a lot of Covid virus cases coming across the border that are not being isolated and taken care of.’
Noem has operated a hands-off policy during the pandemic stressing she prefers people make decisions for themselves.
‘I don’t believe that governors have the authority to tell people that they have to shut down their businesses and they have to shelter in place and to pass mandates on,’ said Noem to KOTA. ‘That should be used for personal responsibility and I’ve told the folks in South Dakota all the time that I will give them all the information that I have to protect their health.’
Law enforcement officials said the first few days of this year’s event were among the busiest they’ve seen.
‘There are more people here than in the 31 years I´ve been doing this,’ Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin told the Rapid City Journal on the second day of the event.
The city held an opening ceremony for the 81st iteration of the event – something it skipped in 2020 in an attempt to tamp down the crowds.
The event kicked off on August 6 with guests packed shoulder-to-shoulder at bars with most not wearing masks
Bikers hung out at the Big Engine Bar at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip campground on near Sturgis, South Dakota
Jody Perewitz, the rally’s ceremonial grand marshal, said she was ‘ecstatic’ to see how many people came for the opening ceremony. Motorcycles stretched for blocks as crowds strolled Main Street, the heart of the rally.
The biggest step city officials took this year to mitigate the risk of infections was allowing rallygoers to drink on public property, with the goal of spreading the crowds into the open air.
The South Dakota Department of Tourism has estimated that the rally brings in about $800 million in revenue for the state, The New York Times reported.
‘We’re out in the wide open,’ said Pam Williamson, a rallygoer from Kansas who also attended last year’s gathering. ‘If you want to wear a mask, that’s your business. If you don’t, that’s your business.’
Last year’s rally was marked by defiance of coronavirus precautions, with T-shirts on sale that read, ‘Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.’
This year, the pandemic appeared to hardly be an afterthought amid a crowd that embraces the risks and lifestyle of the open road.
State health department data reveals that cases jumped by roughly 300 a day from the 1,355 cases reported on the day after the rally ended, August 16, to the 1,639 cases reported on August 17 and the 1,939 cases reported on August 18.
There were 90 cases a day reported to the health department between August 1 and 7, the week leading up to the rally.
This year, the pandemic appeared to hardly be an afterthought amid a crowd that embraces the risks and lifestyle of the open road
Rallygoers are often seen walking with minimal clothing and body paint
An analysis by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics last year found that the rally was a superspreader event that resulted in around $12.2 billion in public health costs, according to The Hill. Though significantly less people attended, researchers linked about 266,000 Covid-19 cases and at least one death to the event.
About 61percent of the state’s population over age 12 have been administered at least one dose of vaccine, and 55percent are fully vaccinated, the department’s data shows. In Meade County, 7,984 of its 28,332 residents have been vaccinated, representing 28percent of the county’s population.
Dr. Shankar Kurra, the vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health, which operates a hospital in Sturgis, told NBC News that the rally was a ‘replay of last year.’
In June, Monument Health had a pandemic low of three Covid patients and Kurra said he thought that number might drop to zero. Now, the number is up to 58 and he said ‘almost 99.9percent are unvaccinated.’
‘It’s not the highest it has ever been but is definitely at a number that puts us at a disadvantage,’ Kurra added. ‘You have a strain on resources and a lot of stress on the health system to give timely care to non-Covid patients.’
However, Daniel Bucheli, a South Dakota Department of Health spokesperson, asserted that the spikes are not tied to the rally. In an email to NBC News on Tuesday, he said the rise in the state’s cases the state “are following a national trend being experienced in every state.”
“Regarding cases surrounding the Sturgis Rally, our Department has only been able to link 16 cases directly to this event,” Bucheli said. “It is important to mention that Meade county currently has a lower vaccination rate than other counties in SD.”