September 17, 2020

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It’s good to be back after some time off. Let’s get right to it: In early August, more than 460,000 tourists poured into a small South Dakota city for a motorcycle rally over 10 days.

Few wore masks or practiced social distancing as attendees gathered at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for bike shows, races, performances and other events, according to the Associated Press. At one concert, the lead singer for the band Smash Mouth shouted, “F— that COVID s—!”

The conditions of the event made it seem like a recipe for increased COVID-19 infections. A new working paper says that’s what happened.

A team of four researchers said the rally could be responsible for as many as 266,796 coronavirus cases in the U.S. over a month’s time — about 19% of the cases reported between Aug. 2 and Sept. 2.

The rally was a “superspreading event” with a hefty price tag because it combined many “worst case scenarios” for coronavirus spread, the researchers wrote.

The preliminary report from San Diego State University’s Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies estimated that the Sturgis-linked infections could have generated over $12 billion in health care costs.

But South Dakota officials disputed the paper’s findings. Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican ally of President Donald Trump and opponent of mask mandates, noted that it has not yet been peer reviewed and said it was “built on incredibly faulty assumptions.”

“This report isn’t science,” Noem said in a statement. “It’s fiction.”

News reports and social media reflected the same disagreement over the study. Many news outlets reported on its findings. A few others sought to pump the brakes.

A Google search for the study returns some vastly different headlines, such as:

  • From Yahoo News: “Sturgis motorcycle rally was a ‘superspreader event.’”
  • From Reason: “No, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Didn’t Spawn 250,000 Coronavirus Cases.”
  • From The Washington Post: “‘Worst case scenarios’ at Sturgis rally could link event to 266,000 coronavirus cases, study says.”

So, what’s the truth? We spoke to two of the report’s authors, who stood by their work, and four outside experts, who warned of the difficulties with estimating the coronavirus’ spread.

The rally, they agreed, had the makings of a superspreading event. But the 266,796 figure is still an estimate, and experts cautioned that it may be too high.

Click here to read more.

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Alex Mahadevan is a senior multimedia reporter at MediaWise. He can be reached at amahadevan@poynter.org or on Twitter at @AlexMahadevan. Follow MediaWise on TikTok.

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