As the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally fast approaches, Monument Health is gearing up for the increased demand for medical care. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a concern this year, but officials said they feel more prepared for any potential surges.
Sturgis Hospital President Mark Schulte said staff sees about a month’s worth of overall patient volume throughout the nine-day rally.
“We’re well prepared for what’s to come just like we are every year, and we’re ready to meet the challenge,” Schulte told the Journal on Tuesday. “The hospital is busy year-round anymore, so there’s a potential for influx with the rally. We prepare for that and short of anything unusual, we can meet the demand we typically see.”
In 2020, Monument saw 606 rally-related patients total — 432 through emergency department visits and 174 through urgent care. In 2019, the number was slightly higher at 666; 472 ED patients and 194 urgent care patients.
Over the last five years, medical incidents at Sturgis have generally remained within the 400-500 patient range, but in 2015 — the 75th annual rally, which had record-breaking attendance of 760,000 — Monument saw 1,077 patients.
All hands on deck
Marla Venjohn, director of the on-call transfer center, has been Monument’s coordinator for rally planning for the last several years. She has notes for each rally and builds off of years past to ensure staff is prepared for whatever may come. Monument tracks every rally-related patient, which is defined as anyone who is in town for the rally, whether as an attendee or a vendor.
Monument does not allow staff to take paid time off during the rally, and many units like nursing have their employees on call or require them to take on extra shifts. The health care system also increases physician coverage, including adding three general surgeons for trauma this year to accommodate the influx of patients from the rally. Additionally, Monument does not schedule any elective surgeries during rally week so they have control over the surgical volume.
“Reaching capacity is always a concern, but we plan like it’s a disaster knowing we will see an increase, we plan for that every year,” Venjohn said.
An increase of patients requires an increase in medical supplies as well. Jamie Lascelles, a registered nurse in the Sturgis Hospital Emergency Department, said the hospital restocks supplies like wound dressings and blood bags before the rally.
“It’s almost comical, the mountains of IV bags we bring in for the rally,” Lascelles, who has worked during the rally for 10 years, said. “There are a lot of resources for just one patient.”
Venjohn said over the years, staff has learned they tend to be busy the week following the rally as well. Nurses are required to be on call for the following week to continue accommodating the high influx of patients.
Any time a large group of people gathers, there is an increased risk of emergencies. And at Sturgis Hospital, normally a small, quiet facility, the rally is the busiest time of year.
“Normal days are so different [than rally days], like day and night,” Maria Rodriguez, a patient care champion in the Sturgis Emergency Department, said. “It feels like the two weeks becomes a month.”
The addition of an urgent care center attached to the Sturgis Hospital has alleviated much of the pressure from the Emergency Department since its opening in 2018. Now, the ED only deals with the emergency patients, and the two units triage patients based on the level of care they need.
Schulte said the surge of rally patients comes with the territory working in Sturgis.
“The rally has been going on for 81 years and Monument has been the health care provider for most of that. That in itself is a calling we have to step up to — it’s a part of living in Sturgis, being its health care provider,” Schulte said.
An aging population
The most common ailments include trauma from motorcycle accidents, but medical providers say they care for about as many, sometimes more, medical diagnoses. Most rally-goers are older, and oftentimes when they come to Sturgis they don’t manage their medical conditions well.
“As the rally continues year after year, we’re seeing an aging of the biker population and that comes with ailments of patients of that age,” Schulte said, such as dehydration, cardiac situations, strokes, and allergic reactions. Increasingly, care providers deal with more of those types of conditions than trauma from a vehicle wreck.
“We kind of laugh, like we think beer is kind of a food group during the rally,” Lascelles said. “People forget to drink water and so we do see a lot of dehydration. It’s hot here, too, I think people come and think that it’s not going to be as warm as it is.”
In busier years, the bottlenecks caused by increased traffic reduce the speeds of motorists, meaning medical providers deal with less high-speed crash trauma.
“You’ll see people tipping over on their motorcycles and breaking their ankles instead of the high speed stuff,” Dr. Charles Lewis, community medical director at Sturgis Hospital, said. Lewis has been working the rally since 1984.
Venjohn said Monument will be monitoring COVID during and after the rally, but that she is not as concerned as she was last year.
“A large percentage of the population is vaccinated, and that’s something we didn’t have last year,” Venjohn said Tuesday. “We’re encouraging vaccination; it doesn’t protect everyone, but we’re in a better place this year than last year.”
There could be a surge in COVID cases during or after the rally, but Venjohn said Monument is prepared to jump back in to their COVID emergency plans if that happens.
Lewis said he is concerned about the delta variant, which spreads 50% faster than the original COVID strain and for which vaccines are potentially less effective.
“Suddenly, we’re bringing in everybody from all over the country, from areas that are kind of a hotbed for delta right now. There’s a concern they’re going to drag it in,” Lewis said.
He said he hopes people get vaccinated, or wear masks if they aren’t, but he knows that won’t always be the case.
“Of course, you would hope that common sense would prevail. But that’s not a common thing that we see at the rally, unfortunately. You would hope everybody doesn’t decide that this is the time to cut loose after COVID and the past year of everybody being cooped up — that’s our fear, that people are going to think, ‘All right, it’s time to live again,’” Lewis told the Journal.
Rodriguez said she didn’t notice too many COVID patients last year during rally week, but some patients who came in sick with the virus had come to the rally knowing they were ill.
“Even though they know [they have COVID], they come with COVID anyways, and then they get worse,” Rodriguez said. “And then you come in and you’re sick and you just want to spread your germs to everybody.”
If any rally-goers or people working at the rally want to get vaccinated, Monument has vaccinations available at all of its locations now. Testing for COVID-19 is more prevalent now than it was last summer, and testing opportunities will be available for rally-goers as well.
“We have a lot more equipment for testing this year, and testing volumes have dropped significantly,” Monument spokesperson Dan Daly said. “It should not be a problem if someone wants to get vaccinated or tested.”
Staying healthy at the rally
Health care providers had several tips for rally-goers on how they can care for themselves during rally week to prevent visits to the urgent care or emergency room.
Providers agreed following Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for COVID — mask wearing for the unvaccinated, hand washing and sanitization — are paramount.
“We’re in the midst of public health emergency, so we’re promoting the COVID vaccine,” Schulte added.
Hydration is also key, Rodriguez said.
“They need to hydrate, because a lot of those people, they come here to party and they get drunk, so definitely they need to hydrate themselves every time [they drink alcohol],” she said.
Bringing along prescription medications seems like a no-brainer, but Lascelles said many people don’t.
“It’s astounding how many patients are on meds and they don’t know the names of them. When you’re from out of town, I don’t have access to your records,” she said. “My favorite thing is when patients come in and they say, ‘Well, I take a pill and it’s blue.’ OK, well, I don’t know what your pill that’s blue is. People understanding what they take and why they take it is important.”
Venjohn advised motorcyclists to be careful on the roads and wear helmets. She said West River residents should not avoid or delay receiving necessary medical care just because of the rally, and that residents should be mindful of crowded roadways and allow extra travel time.
Above all, Schulte said rally-goers should be prepared for the “what ifs,” have a plan, and if medical care is required, Monument will be there for them.
Attendance is expected to be the biggest rally yet — Lascelles said she was told over a million people are estimated to come, but Monument is ready for the challenge.
“We’re hoping everybody’s estimates are wrong, because we hear some pretty amazing numbers. Time will tell. It doesn’t change what we do,” Lewis said. “Every year, we look at each other and say, ‘let’s do this.’ It’s all we can do.”