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Noem: Study connecting 250,000 COVID-19 cases to Sturgis Rally 'isn't science, it's fiction'
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Noem: Study connecting 250,000 COVID-19 cases to Sturgis Rally 'isn't science, it's fiction'


A new study reports that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may be linked to more than 250,000 COVID-19 cases across the country, but state health officials countered that the study has yet to be peer-reviewed and Gov. Kristi Noem said the study is "grossly misleading."

Noem said the study is built on "incredibly faulty assumptions that do not reflect the actual facts and data here in South Dakota."

"This report isn't science; it's fiction," Noem said in a statement. "Under the guise of academic research, this report is nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis."

Researchers from the Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies at San Diego State University attributed more than 250,000 coronavirus cases to the event by reviewing anonymous cell phone data. They also estimated the rally generated $12.2 billion in public health costs.

One of the paper's researchers, Andrew Friedson, tweeted Tuesday that people had accused him and co-authors of having a political agenda in their research.

"I would encourage anyone with this take to see our respective research records," Friedson wrote. "My work, and that of my collaborators, has come down on many different 'sides' of many different important policy issues. We go where the evidence leads us."

South Dakota Department of Health officials said Monday that they had seen the study, but that they would dispute several data points, such as the projection of hundreds of thousands of cases and the basis of using cell phone data to track the spread of COVID-19.

State epidemiologist Joshua Clayton said it’s important to note that the study is a “white paper” study and hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and that it doesn’t account for “an already increasing trend of cases” in South Dakota and the timing of schools and colleges reopening.

“The results do not align with what we know for the impacts of the rally among attendees in the state,” Clayton said.

State health secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon said Tuesday that she would caution reporters against “putting too much stock into models” and pointed to earlier estimates by the state that as many as 600,000 South Dakotans would get COVID-19.

“There was a point when we thought we would see many, many more infections of COVID-19 in our own state, with or without the rally at a time in the past,” she said. “Whether it’s the potential impact of the Sturgis rally or other models that can’t be verified by other factual numbers, that is the case of this particular white paper.”

Clayton said 124 state residents had attended the Sturgis motorcycle rally prior to becoming ill, but the health department isn’t including secondary infections in that tally. A secondary infection would be someone who went to the rally, contracted COVID-19 and then infected a friend or family member who was not at the rally.

Malsam-Rysdon said the DOH has the ability to investigate all cases and identify close contacts, which is the “best way to track secondary infections,” but that community spread in the state and country makes it harder to track the sole source of an individual’s illness.

“We’ve got more people that are becoming sick with COVID-19 from a source that we can’t identify, so I think that’s where it gets problematic to just attribute things like cell phone data” as the source of infections, Malsam-Rysdon said.

Both Malsam-Rysdon and Clayton said they knew cell phone pings from residents of other states and foot traffic increased during the rally, but that they haven’t seen cell phone traffic as a “proven link” to COVID-19 infections or spread.

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Clayton said he’s not familiar with the cell phone data source used in the study and what the limitations are for that data.

When asked if a national contact tracing plan could help in determining the full scope of COVID-19 cases relating back to the Sturgis motorcycle rally, Clayton said the CDC is in the process of evaluating a call for cases that tie back to the rally to collect data on the event.

“We will participate if that does come to a true call to states to submit those cases,” Clayton said.

Clayton said the DOH has been consistent in sharing CDC recommendations against attending large events like the Sturgis motorcycle rally, and that the risk of COVID-19 spread can increase with the size of the gathering.

Case updates

Recoveries outpaced new cases in the state Monday as 105 new cases of COVID-19 were reported, along with 316 new recoveries across the state. 

Monday’s report came from 686 new tests, marking a daily test positive rate of 15.3%. So far, the state has conducted 209,509 tests on 156,686 residents.

Monday’s report totals 15,403 cases across the state, including 12,551 recoveries, 2,679 active cases and no new fatalities. The state’s coronavirus death toll remains at 173.

Ten people were newly hospitalized with COVID-19 Monday, with 68 people currently hospitalized across the state. 1,094 South Dakotans have been hospitalized with COVID-19 at some point in the pandemic.

1,294 of the state’s cases have been connected to educational settings, the DOH reported Monday. 842 total cases have come from South Dakota colleges, universities and technical colleges while another 452 cases have come from K-12 schools.

State epidemiologist Joshua Clayton did not have data on how many of those students or staff have recovered from COVID-19.

When asked if there’s specific hot spots or outbreaks in schools or colleges that the public should know about, Clayton said cases are reported “across the board” and “virtually among all campuses.”

In K-12 schools, 297 students and 155 staff members have had COVID-19 cases. Of all 452 cases found in K-12 schools, 185 were reported from Aug. 23 to 29, and 140 were reported from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5.

43 schools have had three or more cases; 144 schools have had one to two cases; 700 schools have not had any COVID-19 cases as of the date of this report, based on provisional data from the South Dakota Department of Health.

In colleges, 806 cases have been among students and 36 among staff. 15 colleges have had three or more cases. 459 of the 842 cases in college settings were found from Aug. 23 to 29, while another 275 cases were reported from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, South Dakota’s public universities report the following active case numbers:

  • Mines: 17 students, 2 staff, 79 quarantined

  • BHSU: 11 students, 1 staff, 47 quarantined

  • USD: 87 students, 5 staff, 368 quarantined

  • SDSU: 30 students, 2 staff, 193 quarantined

  • DSU: 6 students, 0 staff, 29 quarantined

  • NSU: 40 students, 2 staff, 125 quarantined

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