The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Was a Total COVID Disaster—Again

For the second year in a row, hundreds of thousands of bikers got together and likely gave each other COVID.
August 26, 2021, 3:25pm
Left: Motorcycles fill the streets of Sturgis, S.D on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves) Right: The Flaunt Girls perform on the Wolfman Jack Stage at Buffalo Chip during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in

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It turns out that when hundreds of thousands of people get together during a global pandemic, hospitals are going to suffer the consequences. And South Dakota is learning that for the second year in a row. 

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The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was held from Aug. 6-15 and drew more than 525,000 people, more than last year’s attendance. Since then, South Dakota’s COVID caseload has more than tripled, making its case growth currently the highest in the country. Neighboring North Dakota is 3rd, according to the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker

The South Dakota Department of Health told NBC News that the state has only “directly” linked 16 cases to the rally so far but noted that Meade County’s vaccination rate is lower than the rest of the state. 

And hospitals in the area around Sturgis are already being stretched thin; at Monument Health, which operates hospitals in the western part of the state, Dr. Shankar Kurra told a local NBC affiliate that there were about 60 COVID patients as of Wednesday, adding that the system is also seeing an influx in patients who delayed care last year. 

“It’s not the highest it has ever been but is definitely at a number that puts us at a disadvantage,” Kurra told NBC News. “You have a strain on resources and a lot of stress on the health system to give timely care to non-COVID patients.”

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The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been held every year since 1938, and attendance peaked at 739,000 in 2015, the rally’s 75th anniversary. This year the rally hosted events like pub crawls, poker tournaments, and concerts, with acts like Yelawolf and All That Remains. 

The day the rally started, August 6, South Dakota was averaging fewer than 100 cases a day, according to state data; now it’s averaging more than 300 cases a day. Meade County, which is home to Sturgis, has seen case numbers grow by 700 percent in the last two weeks, according to the Times

More than 61 percent of all adults in South Dakota are fully vaccinated, according to the Times. 

If this feels like deja vu, that’s because it is. Last year, when more than 462,000 people attended Sturgis from more than 60 percent of all U.S. counties, the rally was directly linked to at least 463 COVID-19 cases across 30 jurisdictions and indirectly linked to 186 more in 17 of those jurisdictions, according to a study published by the CDC in July.

That was a rate of 140 per 100,000 attendees; if Sturgis was a state, in other words, it would have had more cases than Mississippi does now. Even then, the CDC study noted that it was “likely that the true national impact of the Sturgis event is underestimated,” because those who were asymptomatic or had mild illness might not have gotten tested. 

The study noted that Sturgis had “many characteristics of a superspreading event.” And after Sturgis, COVID-19 began hammering the upper Midwest; not just South Dakota, where cases peaked in November, but places like Minnesota, Wyoming, and Montana as well.