Coronavirus infections in South Dakota are growing rapidly. The 7-day average climbed from 80 in early August to 406. Governor Kristi Noem mocked a report on the Sturgis Bike Rally projecting 260,000 new cases and $12.2 billion in spending on public health. The spread of the virus is worst in rural areas which voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.
Seven Day Average Increases 408%
The 7-day average for new cases in South Dakota was around 80 cases per day during the first days August before the Sturgis Bike Rally. The 7-day average jumped to 406 by September 28th. The 7-day average is the number of new cases on any given day averaged with the prior six days. This is an increase of 408%. By contrast in the two months prior to August 4 the 7-day average only increased by 29%. (Data: New York Times)
On August 4 South Dakota reported 122 deaths from the coronavirus and 9,079 total cases. Cheyenne River reported one death and 72 total cases. On September 28 South Dakota reported 216 deaths and 21,728 total cases. Sixteen of those deaths happened in the past seven days. Cheyenne River reported two deaths and 224 total cases. One of those deaths happened in the last seven days.
Since the beginning of the pandemic South Dakota and the Noem administration have allowed and encouraged large public gatherings. The state hosted a celebration of the Fourth of July at Mount Rushmore, an indoor event in Sioux Falls for the Professional Bull Riders Association and the Sturgis Bike Rally.
Meanwhile, Cheyenne River and the rest of the country have been wearing masks since April. South Dakota has never required masks. The Noem administration has not limited capacity in public places such as restaurants or taken other mandatory public health measures. Brookings is the only city in South Dakota with a mask mandate.
The world watched as more than 366,000 people congregated in Sturgis in August. The mood of the event was defiant. Few people wore masks. Social distancing was non-existent. The Globe and Mail said the Sturgis Bike Rally, “will probably be the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world this year.”
Sturgis is a Super-Spreader Event
On September 7 the Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies (CHEPS) at San Diego State University and the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) issued a report. The Sturgis Bike Rally was called a “super-spreader event.” It is anticipated the rally will be study in infectious disease epidemiology for generations to come.
The report used cell phone location data and estimates 61% of counties in America have been visited by someone from the Sturgis rally. The report estimates the rally will cause more than 260,000 COVID-19 cases in the United States. The spread is estimated to cost $12.2 billion in public health dollars to treat people who will survive the virus as a result of an infection carried by a rally-goer.
The City of Sturgis Rally and Events Department estimates the 2019 event brought in over $721 million revenue for the city. The South Dakota Department of Revenue says the 2020 event brought in $1.34 million in taxes so far.
The question at hand is if the income to the state was worth the risk. How does it balance against the cost in lives and the violation of public health? Attendees and supporters frame the question as one of personal freedom versus living in fear. Researchers and economists measure the impact across the country and consider policies for the common good. The debate will work itself out as cases spread across America.
Noem responded to the study with a press release titled, “Modeling Isn’t Reality.” Throughout the pandemic she has suggested that scientific modeling doesn’t work in South Dakota. She called the report “fiction” and said, “this report is nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis.”
The mission of CHEPS is to do cutting-edge research, which is urgently needed in a global pandemic. Noem criticized the study because it is not peer reviewed. The team who wrote this report have also studied the impact of homelessness, shelter-in-place orders and protests on the spread of the coronavirus.
Virus Spreads in Middle America
The march of the virus across counties which had lower infection rates until now will change the way of life in those areas. It may also challenge judgements about the urban/rural and Red/Blue divide in America.
In a reversal of the early days of the pandemic, the current wave of new cases is spreading through mid-America in small towns and rural areas. These communities tend to be poorer and more elderly. They also tend to have voted for President Trump in the 2016 election and many are in highly contested states for the 2020 election.
COVID-19 Red Zones August 29-September 5
Red Zone counties have a 7-day infection rate of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 population.
According to the Brookings Institute, from May to June the number of Republican-leaning counties where new COVID-19 cases exceeded 1,000 to 100,000 residents rose from 35 to 157. From July to August the number of Republican-leaning counties in this category rose to 1,084.
Ziebach County tends Republican and has 5.2 cases/100,000 trending down. Dewey County tends Democratic. It has 68 cases/100,000 trending up.