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Researchers Push Back On Notion That Sturgis Bike Rally Led To 250,000 New Cases

The researchers still think the motorcycle rally and concerts led to hundreds of cases.

Photo: Catherine Taylor

This year's Sturgis motorcycle rally, which saw 450,000 people flock to South Dakota between August 7 and 16 featured no social distancing, no mask enforcement, and a whole of rock and metal. Buckcherry, Trapt, Fozzy, Drowning Pool, Quiet Riot, Smash Mouth, Adelitas Way, Saving Abel, and Night Ranger were among the performers that week, and shortly after the event, studies were conducted to see just how big of an impact the event had.

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A few weeks after the festival, the seven day average of new coronavirus cases in South Dakota more than tripled. Neighboring states also saw rises in cases.

Last week, we wrote about a report published by Andrew Friedson, the Associate Professor of Economics at CU Denver, where he estimated that the festival resulted in 250,000 new cases of coronavirus and a $12 billion dollar public health cost. To be clear, he wasn't saying that 250,000 people in Sturgis contracted the virus. It could've been a handful of people, who then traveled home, and passed the virus to somebody, who passed it to somebody else and so on. And the report determined that 250,000 cases, roughly 19% of the national total, were a result of the rally.

A new report from CBS notes that researchers at Johns Hopkins University are "raising doubts" about the study. The Hopkins researchers do agree that the Sturgis event led to a spike in cases in the county that hosted the event and surrounding areas, but they question the 250,000 number, calling the model "relatively weak."

"The case data show relatively stable trends prior to the event and clear changes around the event, with little reason to believe that the changes in cases could have been caused by anything but the event," the Johns Hopkins researchers write. "The overall conclusions that the Sturgis event caused a large increase in COVID-19 cases and infections are likely to be relatively robust to the specific statistical methodologies used."

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CBS reports the researchers had three main issues with the study:

-The San Diego researchers didn't compare geographic areas that were hit by coronavirus infections from Sturgis with other nearby areas. For example, a county in Arizona was compared to counties in Maine and Hawaii despite significant differences in the populations and mask-wearing habits of the two areas.

-The Sturgis rally likely caused more people to get a coronavirus test given the numerous warnings before the event about the potential health risks. That increase in testing — not direct transmission from people at the rally — could explain the jump in reported cases.
– The method used to put a public health cost of $12 billion on the Sturgis rally is simplistic because it fails to reflect that the costs of treating people with COVID-19 can vary widely around the country.

Joseph Sabia, who published the original report, stands by his study. Because the original story seemingly caused so much controversy, we wanted to post this follow up.

It should be noted, everybody agrees that the rally led to at least hundreds of new cases. That's still hundreds of people that could've avoided being sick, and passing along the sickness to others. We desperately want concerts to resume, and for life to get back to normal, but people's safety should always be the top priority.

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