Sturgis analyst finds Rally COVID study ‘troubling’

Monument Health caregivers administer COVID-19 tests during the Sturgis community-wide post-Rally mass testing which showed 26 positives cases out of 650 patients tested. Pioneer photo by Deb Holland

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STURGIS — A Sturgis program evaluator/epidemiologist said a national study linking more than 250,000 COVID-19 infections to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally makes some “big assumptions.”

John Usera, of John J. Usera, Ph.D. and Associates, Inc. in Sturgis, who uses applied mathematics on a daily basis to solve real-world problems, said he questions the conclusions of the study.

“They are using our area (COVID) data and projecting it onto the national level. I think that’s very troubling. That’s a big assumption,” he said. “It’s tough to make a straight-line connection like that.”

Usera, a statistician, analyst, evaluator, consultant, epidemiologist and forecaster, said the study in question is called a white paper, or a model, and was done as a discussion paper series.

“They created a mathematical model based on a series of variables they were able to collect,” Usera said. “This model has not been substantiated by any actual data. Their conclusion is based on a lot of false assumptions.”

The city of Sturgis on Thursday issued a statement about The San Diego State University IZA study also saying they found it “blatantly faulty.”

Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie said the study’s conclusion – which states that nearly 20% of the COVID-19 cases reported in America from Aug. 2 to Sept. 2 were due to the Rally – is “outrageous.”

“The city of Sturgis holds those affected by COVID-19 in our thoughts and prayers as the virus continues to impact our nation and world,” Ainslie said. “We recognize that individuals were exposed to the virus on their trip to, from, or while at the Rally, but the data reported by health officials across the nation show that the impact from the event was a mere fraction of what was projected and anticipated by many of the experts.”

Usera said the model is nothing more than an estimate.

Researchers claim they used anonymized cell phone data to show that foot traffic at restaurants and bars, entertainment venues, hotels and campgrounds rose considerably in and around the Sturgis area during the 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

The study also looked at the rate of new COVID-19 cases in Meade County, as well as counties that sent the most attendees to the event, showing an increase in both over the weeks following the event.

“They made a lot of assumptions without very good clarification,” Usera said.

Usera was able to determine that the study’s authors tracked about 14,000 people through cell phone data or “pings” of their phones.

In reading through the 68-page whitepaper, Usera found that the researchers began tracking activity in July to get a baseline and continued on into September.

“They did it for about 56 days,” he said.

The data the authors used heavily was tied to South Dakota COVID-19 numbers, Usera said. They also considered COVID positive data from states where the majority of attendees came from – Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

“What they were looking at was the rate of positive cases before the Rally and then what it was afterward. That’s how they came up with their numbers,” he said.

None of the information contained in the study confirmed that this spread came from the Sturgis Rally, Usera said.

“They are just making an assumption that these people came to the Rally and they got it (COVID) from the Rally. It’s a big assumption that they are making,” he said.

To make his point, Usera said before the Rally, Meade County had about 60 positive COVID-19 cases and following the Rally, the county increased to 364. It’s difficult to assume that the 304 additional cases can all be attributed to the Rally.

“I am sure there is probably a good percentage of those, but I wouldn’t say they all came from the Rally,” he said.

Why was this study done?

The study was titled: The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event:

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19. The authors said that large crowds, coupled with minimal mask-wearing and social distancing by attendees, raised concerns that this event could serve as a COVID-19 “super-spreader.” They said this study would be the first to explore the impact of this event on social distancing and the spread of COVID-19.

The authors, working for IZA Institute of Labor Economics, were Dhaval Dave Bentley University, Andrew I. Friedson, University of Colorado Denver,  Drew McNichols, University of San Diego-California and San Diego State University, and  Joseph J. Sabia, San Diego State University.

Ainslie said fewer than 300 cases have been identified as tied to the Rally nationwide.

“The careless ease with which mainstream media outlets have published a report that multiplies that factual data by 1,000 is shameful,” Ainslie said.

He said the absolute preposterousness of the conclusion is further demonstrated by the results of the Sturgis community-wide post-Rally mass testing which showed 26 positives cases out of 650 patients tested.

He said the continued media focus on infection and the hope of increased transmission rates and death following the Rally are reminiscent of the models earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic when officials were told that hospitals would be overwhelmed, there would have a massive lack of ventilators, and 3-5% of individuals would not survive.

“Fortunately, as we have seen, the underlying assumptions of these models were unfounded and categorically inaccurate, just as is the conclusion of this report,” Ainslie said.

On Friday, the state Department of Health reported 283 new cases.

There are 2,515 active cases, 98 people hospitalized, and 177 people have died.

In Meade County, seven new cases were reported, for a total of 371, of which 283 have recovered.

In Lawrence County, one new case was reported, for a total of 278, of which 206 have recovered.

In Butte County, two new cases were reported, for a total of 64, of which 45 have recovered.

There is a substantial rate of community spread in all three counties.

A White House report indicated that last week in South Dakota, Meade and Lawrence counties were among 19 counties in the “Red Zone,” meaning that there were both new cases above 100 per 100,000 population, and lab test positivity rates were above 10%.

Communities in the Red Zone locally include Spearfish and Rapid City.

Monument Health reported Friday that 22 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, and the West River doubling rate is speeding up to 26 days. The test positivity rate system wide is 7.5%.

At Black Hills State University, eight students and two employees currently have active cases. Twenty-eight students and staff are isolated or quarantined.

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