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USA TODAY

SIOUX FALLS, SD – A study by a California research group estimates that the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota resulted in more than 260,000 coronavirus cases in the month following the event.

Researchers from the Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies at San Diego State University released their findings on Saturday in a 63-page report.

The estimate is dramatically higher than the number of cases related to the rally reported by both the South Dakota Health Department and the Associated Press.

South Dakota governor Kristi Noem said Tuesday the study was “fiction” and criticized journalists who covered it.

The aim of the study was to assess the impact of a single “super-spreader” event on the spread of COVID-19. The same group has conducted similar studies on cases resulting from events such as the nationwide Black Lives Matter rallies and the June political rally for President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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Using cell phone data as part of their analysis, the researchers identified areas where many rallyers were present and tracked cases before and after the event. These results, coupled with a per-case cost estimate from another team of economists, conclude that the rally may have had public health costs of approximately $ 12.2 billion.

“Although the event benefited South Dakota economically, most of the health care costs will be borne by the rest of the country,” Andrew Friedson, one of four authors on the study, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, who is TODAY part of the US network, on Monday.

State epidemiologist: “The results do not agree with what we know.”

Noem came to the rally participants’ defense on Tuesday while harshly criticizing the study.

“Under the guise of academic research, this report is nothing short of an attack on those who have exercised their personal freedom to participate in Sturgis,” Noem said in the statement. “Predictably, some of the media is breathless about this untested model, built on incredibly flawed assumptions that don’t reflect the real facts and figures here in South Dakota.”

Noem’s criticism comes hours after a similar review by the state’s top health authorities.

The number of cases estimated in the study differs significantly from the number of cases related to the rally reported by the South Dakota Department of Health. As of Tuesday, the state reported 124 cases among South Dakota residents who became ill after attending the rally.

The Associated Press last week identified 290 cases from 12 states involved in the rally.

“The results do not match what we know about the impact of the rally,” said state epidemiologist Josh Clayton on Tuesday.

This discrepancy is due to the fact that the state uses contact tracing to identify certain cases. The study takes a different approach.

Instead of examining contact tracing and trying to identify specific people who had the disease and pass it on to others, the San Diego researchers looked at the areas where most people were sent to the rally and how case trends are following changed the event.

“We’ll never be able to track down every single person on Sturgis,” Friedson said. “So if we want a good faith estimate using currently accepted statistical techniques, I think that is the best number we will get.”

South Dakota Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon disagreed with the study’s methodology on Tuesday, questioning the link between cell phone data and cases. She and Clayton also noted that the research paper is not currently under peer review.

The public health cost estimate comes largely from a separate study published last month by two economists. This study found that non-fatal COVID-19 cases cost a weighted average of $ 46,000 per case. Using that number – and assuming all rally cases were non-fatal – the San Diego researchers estimated the public health cost to be $ 12.2 billion.

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“This is enough to pay each of the estimated 462,182 rally participants $ 26,553.64 for non-attendance,” the newspaper said.

Malsam-Rysdon said she didn’t see the research behind this cost estimate, but cautioned against taking it at face value.

“I just want to warn you against stocking up on models … that cannot be verified by other facts,” Malsam-Rysdon said of the study. “I think that’s the case with this particular white paper.”

Previous studies of the Tulsa and Black Lives Matter rallies showed no later increases in cases, Friedson said, and this is mainly because he and his co-authors found that the new cases were offset by more people in those areas, who stayed at home during these events.

What is special about Sturgis, however, is its small population. Even if everyone in town stayed home for the duration of the rally, it wouldn’t be enough to make up for the hundreds of thousands of attendees, Friedson said.

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