Two weeks after the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, reported Covid infections in the state have risen nearly sixfold.
South Dakota counted 3,819 new cases in the past two weeks, including seven deaths, up from 644 cases in the 14 days preceding it. That makes it the state with the largest percent increase in Covid cases in the past two weeks.
The state's rate of Covid-19 infections per capita in the past two weeks is in the bottom half of the country, but it's the sharp and sudden increase in case counts that sets it apart.
Meade County, home to Sturgis, has counted 330 new cases in the last two weeks, up from the 20 reported in the two weeks before the rally, according to Johns Hopkins University's case count. The 1,550 percent increase comes after the motorcycle rally, which usually draws around half a million people, possibly had its biggest year ever, according to County Sheriff Ron Merwin.
Dr. Shankar Kurra, the vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health, which operates hospitals serving western South Dakota, including one in Sturgis, said the events at this year’s rally feel like “a replay of last year.”
In June, Monument Health had three Covid patients, a pandemic low for hospitalizations, and Kurra said he thought that number might drop to zero. Now, the number is up to 58, about half of what it was at its peak in the winter. The people in the hospital are younger and “almost 99.9% are unvaccinated,” he said.
“It’s not the highest it has ever been but is definitely at a number that puts us at a disadvantage,” Kurra said. “You have a strain on resources and a lot of stress on the health system to give timely care to non-Covid patients.”
It’s too soon to know if the Sturgis rally, which began on Aug. 6 and ended Aug. 15, had a direct effect on the increase or can be classified as a “superspreader” event, but Meade County is now reporting a 36 percent positivity rate, with about 1 in every 3 Covid tests returning a positive result. The 82 cases the county reported Tuesday was its highest daily number yet, eclipsing the 68 cases it reported on Aug. 27, 2020. (Meade County has reported 3,168 cases and 31 deaths since the start of the pandemic, one of the lowest Covid case counts, when adjusted for population, among the state's 66 counties).
From the onset of the pandemic, South Dakota has seen a higher per capita rate of infections than all but two states, North Dakota and Tennessee, per an NBC News tally.
Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, has been firm in keeping South Dakota open throughout the pandemic, shunning mask mandates, criticizing public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and insisting on holding mass gatherings against CDC recommendations. On Monday, after the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s two-dose Covid-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and up, the governor tweeted that if President Joe Biden “illegally mandates vaccines, I will take every action available under the law to protect South Dakotans from the federal government.” Currently, 48.4 percent of South Dakota is fully vaccinated, according to an NBC News tally.
In an email Tuesday, a South Dakota Department of Health spokesperson, Daniel Bucheli, said the spikes in Covid cases in 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."
A post-mortem of the 2020 Sturgis rally showed it led to “widespread transmission” and Covid-19 cases in at least 25 other states.
“Although the number of cases identified is sizable — 140 cases per 100,000 attendees — it is likely that the true national impact of the Sturgis event is underestimated,” said the study, written in part by the CDC, citing asymptomatic cases, visitors not reporting rally attendance and difficulties with contact tracing.
While much of the rally is outdoors, another study was conducted on how the rally affected caseloads in neighboring Minnesota showed that the primary infections that could be traced appeared to occur indoors, in a restaurant setting.
This year, the city of Sturgis took steps to prevent indoor transmission, like allowing outdoor wine and beer consumption if attendees bought a special cup. A spokesperson for the city did not respond to a request for comment.
Now, however, the number of cases is not where Kurra and his colleagues want it to be.
“It didn’t help that you had a mass gathering event like the rally," he said.