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Weeks after Sturgis motorcycle rally, first COVID-19 death reported as cases accelerate in Midwest

The man, in his 60s with underlying conditions, was hospitalized and in the ICU after returning from Sturgis, officials said.
Image: Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally To Be Held Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Motorcyclists ride down Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D., on Aug. 8, 2020.Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

A Minnesota man who rumbled into South Dakota last month with thousands of other bikers for the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally was reported dead Wednesday of COVID-19.

The man, in his 60s with underlying conditions, was hospitalized and in the intensive care unit after returning from Sturgis, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed in an email to NBC News. The death, initially reported by The Washington Post, is the first traced to the 10-day event that attracted more than 400,000 people and has revved up the coronavirus crisis across the region.

Some 260 cases across 11 states had already been recorded before the first death linked to the Sturgis bash, a sometimes raucous event that ran from Aug. 7 through 16 during which the bars were packed and where there was barely any attempt made at social distancing, let alone wearing masks.

Since then, the number of coronavirus cases have doubled in South Dakota and there has been an uptick in new cases being reported in neighboring North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska as well, the latest NBC News Digital figures show.

“Any time you have a mass gathering of hundreds of thousands of people and then they return to their home states, you’re going to increase the likelihood of a ‘superspreader’ event,” Victor Huber, a biomedical sciences professor at the University of South Dakota, said.

But it’s not just the bikers who appear to be driving the spike in new cases, said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Two thing clearly appear to be driving it,” Khan said. “The motorcycle rally in Sturgis, as well as students returning to college and universities. The timeline seems to support that.”

Khan agreed that the rally appears to have been a “superspreader event.”

“Participants could have taken it home with them,” Khan said. “Or they could have brought it with them there, and passed it on to people who brought it home with them and dispersed it nationally.”

Same goes for the college students who have been coming and going from South Dakota in recent weeks, Khan said.

Before the rally, the infection rate in South Dakota had been “hovering at 8 to 10 percent,” Huber said. “The last couple weeks, it’s been up over 15 percent.”

Huber said he’s also been seeing a spike in cases on the University of South Dakota campus in Vermillion, where students are now required to wear masks upon entering buildings and the cafeteria now only serves takeout meals.

Currently, the school is reporting on its COVID-19 dashboard 229 students with active cases and 637 who are presently in quarantine.

“We’re really starting to see widespread community transmission in South Dakota,” Huber said. “A large part of the economy is tourism, so we have had people coming into the state in greater numbers. We’ve also been returning students to in-person instruction, which is likely to play a factor.”

Earlier this week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem acknowledged that her state is seeing more active cases than ever before.

“I don’t think any of this is a surprise because for the last several months I’ve told people that we will get more cases, we know for a fact we can’t stop the virus, now we can slow it down and bend our curve, which is what we did, but we were always going to focus on that hospitalization rate,” Noem said at the Sioux Falls Downtown Rotary Club.

Noem did not mention the Sturgis rally, which is a big moneymaker for the state and appears to have drawn even bigger crowds than last year. The South Dakota Department of Revenue reported Tuesday that it has, thus far, collected $1.3 million in taxes from the rally.

"The revenue sum from temporary vendors in the Black Hills is a 6 percent increase compared to 2019," the department reported.

Noem, a Republican and staunch ally of President Donald Trump, also didn’t mention the Fourth of July bash at Mount Rushmore (held July 3) that drew thousands of the president’s supporters and about which she said, explicitly, “We will not be socially distancing.”

“We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we'll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one,” Noem also said during an interview on Fox News' "The Ingraham Angle."

Since the start of the pandemic, South Dakota has reported a total of 13,749 cases and 167 deaths, North Dakota has recorded 12,004 cases and 149 deaths, Nebraska has logged 34,574 cases and 399 deaths, Minnesota has reported 76,404 cases and 1,872 deaths, and Iowa has tallied 65,480 cases and 1,123 deaths, the latest NBC News figures show.

But a big chunk of that arithmetic has accumulated since Aug. 16, the last day of the rally.

South Dakota has recorded 3,475 new cases and 14 deaths, the NBC News figures show. And there have been 20 deaths and 3,413 new cases in North Dakota, 38 deaths and 4,202 new cases in Nebraska, 120 deaths and 11,206 new cases in Minnesota, and 148 deaths and 13,033 new cases in Iowa.

While this corner of the Midwest in now one of the nation’s COVID-19 hot spots, these states still account for a small percentage of the country's nearly 6.2 million cases and almost 186,00 deaths — both world-leading figures.

All, with the exception of Minnesota, are red states that Trump won in 2016 and aims to win again in November to get re-elected.

Trump has alternately downplayed the dangers of the pandemic and praised his administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis that continues to generate about 40,000 new cases per day and has wrecked the economy.

But nearly half of American households are going hungry, NBC News has reported, and food pantry demand is up by 20 percent since the start of the pandemic. And the U.S. now accounts for almost a quarter of the 25.8 million cases and around a fifth of the over 858,000 deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.

While states in the Northeast such as New York and New Jersey racked up the most cases and deaths back in February and March when the strategy for fighting the virus was still being formulated, states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona that began reopening in May at Trump's urging have seen the most deaths and cases in recent months.

California, a state that took aggressive action early on to deal with the crisis and then saw a big spike when it reopened, leads the nation with 716,881 cases. In recent weeks, however, the number of new cases and hospitalizations have been declining.

In other developments:

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Americans on the “TODAY” show to be extra careful during the upcoming Labor Day weekend. “When you have a holiday like Labor Day – we have seen, after Fourth of July, we saw after Memorial Day, a surge in cases,” Fauci said. “Wear a mask. Keep social distancing. Avoid crowds. You can avoid those kind of surges. You don't want to be someone who's propagating the outbreak. You want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” Fauci has taken flak from Trump and his supporters for frequently contradicting the president’s often rosy reports on the progress of the pandemic. As recently as July, Trump predicted COVID-19 would “just disappear.”

  • COVID-19 has killed more cops than bullets this year, The Washington Post reported. Using data from the Officer Down Memorial Page, the newspaper concluded that "on-the-job coronavirus infections were responsible for a least 100 officer deaths, more than gun violence, car accidents and all other causes combined." Joe Biden, the Democrat seeking to oust Trump from the White House, said as much this week during a campaign speech in Pittsburgh. “More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol,” he said.
  • The federal Department of Health and Human Services is canceling some of its remaining orders after signing nearly $3 billion in emergency contracts this spring as the COVID-19 crisis was spreading and suddenly ventilators were in short supply. Now it has 120,000 of the lifesaving devices ready for deployment. “By terminating the remainder of deliveries from these contracts, HHS is balancing federal stockpile requirements with commercial market demand for ventilators,” Carol Danko, an agency spokesperson, said. “As a result, HHS is saving the U.S. taxpayer millions of dollars by halting delivery of additional ventilators that are no longer required.” Democrats contend the White House “vastly overspent in its quest to fulfill President Donald Trump’s pledge to make the United States the ‘king of ventilators,’” The Associated Press reported.

  • Confronted with a spike of cases in her state that appears to be partly the result of young people carousing in bars, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is considering raising the drinking age. Currently it's 21. “We had restrictions, they didn’t abide by that," the governor said. "We put enforcement behind it, we gave them a warning, we set up a fine, we said if it happens again, you’re going to lose your license.” Reynolds, who is a Republican, said she will monitor the numbers over the next two weeks before she makes any move.
  • Newly-opened colleges and universities continue to be coronavirus hot spots, with numerous outbreaks blamed on students who fail to follow school directives and party without taking proper precautions. Case in point: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported more than 400 infections since school started Aug. 24 and have traced most of the cases to big bashes last weekend. The University of Georgia reported 821 positive cases after its first full week of classes. Some 760 students at the University of Kentucky have tested positive and currently the 5,000 or so students who belong to fraternities or sororities are being re-tested. The University of Arkansas has 222 active cases on its COVID-19 dashboard. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio has reported 200 cases since Monday. Some schools have avoided similar crises by making the fall semester fully remote for undergraduates.