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Cases Spiked in South Dakota After Sturgis Bike Rally

Daily reports of new coronavirus cases grew tenfold in South Dakota in August, with the worst outbreaks concentrated in the western part of the state. Hospitalizations have increased swiftly in the last few weeks. National Guard soldiers were dispatched to aid with testing.

The increase came during and after the state’s annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew more than 550,000 people from all over the country to South Dakota — even more than last year’s, which forged ahead while most large events were canceled. This year’s happened during a broad spread of the Delta variant that drove a spike in all 50 states. Uncertain, experts said, was the role the rally may have had in spreading the virus in South Dakota. And unanswered was a larger question: How safe are major gatherings held at least partly outdoors — events like Sturgis, Lollapalooza and college football games.

Cases in Meade County, which includes Sturgis, began to rise in mid-August, just as the motorcycle rally was winding down. By the end of August, more than 30 county residents were testing positive most days, up from about one a day before the rally. Case levels have since started to decline.

But the vast majority of people at the rally came from elsewhere and, if they became infected, would be counted in the data in their home states.

As the Delta variant spreads widely, and as Americans yearn to go back to normal, health experts have debated the public health risks of large outdoor events and music festivals.

Outdoor events are far safer than those held in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces. But even gatherings where the main event is outside can include indoor opportunities for Covid to spread.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said it may be too early to link the Delta variant surge that’s overwhelming hospitals and increasing case level to large outdoor events, including the rally in Sturgis.

“I haven’t seen any data so far that says outdoor gatherings themselves are pretty risky,” said Dr. Jha. “And what I’ve said about Sturgis is, I don’t think it was the rally itself, I think it was all the bars and restaurants and all the stuff and night and evenings and all the indoor stuff.”

In Wisconsin, a celebration ofthe Milwaukee Bucks’s championship run was linked to nearly 500 cases.

About 90 miles south of the Bucks’s arena, health officials linked at least 200 cases to Chicago’s Lollapalooza, an outdoor music festival, despite requiring proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test at least 72 hours before arrival. City leaders in Chicago said that relatively low case total, out of hundreds of thousands of attendees, vindicated their decision to forge ahead with the event.

Dr. Shankar Kurra, the vice president for medical affairs at Monument Health, which is headquartered in Rapid City, S.D., said last month that the number of coronavirus cases in the area was much higher than at this time than they were following last year’s rally.

“It’s hard not to say these cases didn’t come from the rally,” Dr. Kurra. “The cases had to come from somewhere and we know these cases did not come from here.”

Local officials in Sturgis have pushed back against the scrutiny of the event, saying the rally has received unequal criticism compared to other large gatherings across the country. Attendance at this year’s event was about 20 percent higher than last year, said Dan Ainslie, the Sturgis city manager.

“As the data illustrates, South Dakota’s current infection rate is mirroring the entire upper Midwest region,” said Mr. Ainslie. “There was some spread of Covid from the rally, though the national media fixation on it is without merit given the fact that our experience is so similar to our neighbors.”

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