This One Event May Have Spread COVID to 60 Percent of U.S. Counties

There are already reports of over 100 new cases in eight states tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

After an early summer filled with dire COVID surges, new coronavirus cases are finally on the decline in the U.S. But unfortunately, a few states are still witnessing increases, with most linked to a single gathering that generated a large number of infections. In fact, it could have implications for more than half of the entire nation. According to recently released data, attendees from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota have traveled back to 60 percent of all counties in the U.S., and reports of dozens of COVID cases connected to the event are starting to come in.

The discovery is based on an analysis of anonymous cell phone data collected by Camber Systems, which aggregates cell phone activity for health researchers, the Associated Press reports. The researchers found that visitors to the 10-day festival have since traveled back to far-reaching corners of the United States—61 percent of all U.S. counties, to be exact. As mass testing gets underway, NBC News reports that more than 100 cases in eight states have already been linked to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

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"Imagine trying to do contact tracing for the entire city of [Washington], D.C., but you also know that you don't have any distancing, or the distancing is very, very limited, the masking is limited," Navin Vembar, co-founder Camber Systems, told the AP. "It all adds up to a very dangerous situation for people all over the place."

The annual event generated national headlines for carrying on against the advice of health officials, who warned that the large gathering created the potential for a "superspreader event." A now-infamous concert by '90s band Smash Mouth at the rally saw attendees gather in throngs without wearing the face masks or practicing the social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many others spent time in crowded bars, tattoo parlors, and restaurants over the course of the rally's run, from Aug. 7 to Aug. 16, including one confirmed patron at a crowded saloon who later tested positive for coronavirus.

Bikers cruise along Highway 24 near Wyoming's Devils Tower on Friday, August 14, 2020. Every year, bikers who attend the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota descend on the iconic landmark.
Alamy News Live

Some local health departments have suggested anyone who attended the rally quarantine for two weeks, while others are attempting to coordinate testing across states in an attempt to establish contact tracing, NBC News reports. But the sheer size of the rally makes doing so no easy task.

"We're expecting that we're going to see many more cases associated with Sturgis," Kris Ehresmann, the director of the Minnesota Department of Health's infectious disease division, said during a press call on Aug. 21. "Thousands of people attended that event, and so it's very likely that we will see more transmission." And for more risky behavior amid the pandemic, check out 24 Things You're Doing Every Day That Put You at COVID Risk.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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