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250,000 COVID-19 infections from Sturgis? 'Made up' numbers, S.D. governor says

In other coronavirus news: The pandemic has forced many Americans to quit their jobs and Los Angeles to cancel trick-or-treating this Halloween.
Image: Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally To Be Held Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Motorcyclists drive down Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Aug. 7, 2020 in Sturgis, S.D.Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images file

The governor of South Dakota on Wednesday disputed economists who say the motorcycle rally in Sturgis last month may have caused as many as 250,000 coronavirus infections, saying they just "made up some numbers and published them."

Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, questioned the math, even though her state has reported a 126 percent increase in new coronavirus cases (over 3,700) in the last two weeks and one death has been linked to the 10-day rally that attracted more than 400,000 people and revved-up the coronavirus crisis in neighboring states.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in Sioux Falls on June 22, 2020.Stephen Groves / AP file

“That's actually not factual whatsoever,” Noem said of the economists' study in a FOX News interview. “What they did is they took a snapshot in time and they did a lot of speculation, did some back of the napkin math and made up some numbers and published them. This study wasn't even done by a health care study, it was done by the Institute of Labor Economics and it's completely untrue.”

The study, by four American economists and published by the German-based IZA Institute of Labor Economics, posited that crowded conditions coupled with “minimal mask-wearing and social distancing by attendees” created a “superspreading event” that is likely to result in 266,796 COVID-19 infections.

Noem insisted just 124 new cases in South Dakota have been connected to the Sturgis bash, which ran from Aug. 7 through Aug. 16.

“You know, other states are tracking cases, I think we have 11 other cases that have tracked, you know, people that have traveled to the Sturgis motorcycle bike rally but it's less than 300 cases,” Noem said.

The quartet reached their conclusions by collecting cellphone data to track foot traffic at bars, restaurants and other venues in Sturgis and “extrapolated a possible infection count based on increased infection rates following the event,” NBC News reported Tuesday.

"We stand by the entirety of our coronavirus research," Dhaval Dave, an economics professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, told NBC News. "We used publicly available data that other researchers have used, including the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). These are not forecasting exercises."

The IZA economists’ findings buttress what public health experts told NBC News earlier, namely that the doubling of COVID-19 cases in South Dakota and uptick in new cases reported in neighboring North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska as well, is a good indication that the cases can be directly tied to the Sturgis rally.

The only Sturgis fatality so far, a Minnesota man in his 60s who had underlying conditions, was hospitalized after returning home from the rally, the Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed.

Noem is an ally of President Donald Trump and has defended the president’s much-criticized response to the pandemic. She also played host to Trump’s Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore on July 3, when hundreds of attendees made little attempt to social distance or wear masks.

One of the nation’s least-populated states, South Dakota has reported 173 deaths out of 15,403 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the latest NBC News figures.

But many of those cases were reported after Noem, at the urging of Trump, reopened her state as the pandemic was just starting to race across the plains.

Trump, who has been criticized for downplaying the dangers of the virus and for responding too slowly to the crisis, has frequently lashed out at scientists and public health experts who have questioned his false claims about the progress of the pandemic and his administration’s strategy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's leading infectious disease experts, survived a White House attempt to discredit him in July.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. climbed to 190,880 out of 6,357,241 confirmed cases, both world-leading numbers.

The U.S. also accounts for almost a quarter of the more than 27.6 million cases and about a fifth of the nearly 900,000 deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.

In other coronavirus news:

  • Trump was warned in January that COVID-19 was dangerous and much worse than the flu but told journalist Bob Woodward he deliberately downplayed the coronavirus threat to the American public saying, "I don't want to create a panic." Trump's own words were in an audio clip posted on the Washington Post's website and are in Woodward's new book "Rage," which is to be released next week. Trump waited until March 13 to declare a national state of emergency and as recently as July he insisted the pandemic would "just disappear' even as new cases continued to rise.
  • More than 20 million jobs were lost as a result of the pandemic and conventional wisdom suggests Americans lucky to still be employed would hang onto their jobs. But The Associated Press reported Wednesday that nearly 3.4 million people quit their jobs in July, up from 2.8 million in June. “The uptick was unusual because people are usually reluctant to leave jobs when the job market is weak,” the AP reported. “But some people appear to be staying home to avoid infections and others are taking care of children who can't go back to school because of the pandemic.” While Trump has claimed repeatedly that the economy is recovering at a rapid rate, there were 20 percent fewer job postings in August than during the same month last year. And in the hard-hit hospitality and tourism industries, job postings were down 47 percent, the AP reported.

  • Trick-or-treating is banned in Los Angeles this Halloween, NBC Los Angeles reported. Citing the coronavirus, the county Department of Health also put the kibosh on Halloween parties and carnivals and announced that haunted houses were also off-limits this year to boys and ghouls. "Since some of the traditional ways in which this holiday is celebrated (do) not allow you to minimize contact with non-household members, it is important to plan early and identify safer alternatives," guidance posted on the agency's website states.

  • Indoor dining in New York City is resuming starting Sept. 30, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday. But with occupancy limited to 25 percent and restaurants required to close at midnight, getting a table in some places could be tough. Plus, diners will have to get their temperatures taken before they step inside and will have to wear masks when not seated. There will be no bar service. And the city is deploying a team of 400 enforcement personnel to help the State Police Task Force ensure that restaurants are complying with all the safety protocols. If the infection rate stays down, Cuomo said they could boost capacity to 50 percent by Nov. 1. New York was one of the hardest-hit states early on in the pandemic and still leads the nation with 33,855 deaths. Since then, the state has successfully flattened the curve and has slowly started reopening New York City. Bon appetit!