A new study out this week opened the door for media scrutiny of South Dakota, once again giving legacy outlets an opportunity to criticize the state’s Republican governor for refusing to shut down the state and to condemn her leadership.
The report, conducted by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, determined that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota last month was a “super-spreader” event infecting 250,000 people and racking up $12.2 billion in public health costs, a conclusion that was uncritically published among a wide array of outlets.
“Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was ‘superspreading event’ that cost public health $12.2 billion: analysis,” blared the headline in The Hill as the website’s number one trending story on its second day in a row Wednesday morning.
“Sturgis motorcycle rally was a ‘superspreader event'” declared Yahoo News.
“The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Was A Massive COVID-19 Superspreader Event, A New Study Claims,” wrote BuzzFeed.
The study’s conclusions however, were built entirely upon nefarious assumptions especially prone to outside circumstances and fly in the face of the state’s own reporting.
To reach their findings, researchers analyzed anonymous cellphone data to track non-residents from before and after the mid-August rally. The team then linked those in attendance with rising cases in their own communities upon leaving the event, comparing the change in cases following the rally’s end.
In other words, researchers assumed any rise in cases, in any community whose resident or residents attended the rally, was attributable to the South Dakota festival without considering simultaneous events such as schools re-opening.
On Wednesday morning, the South Dakota Department of Health told The Federalist it has only credited 124 of the state’s positive cases to in the weeks since to the Sturgis bike rally. Last week, even the Washington Post reported that its own survey of government health departments found merely 260 cases across 11 states linked to the rally two weeks following its conclusion, far below the more than 266,000 cases researchers associated with the celebration. While the Post wrote that epidemiologists believe the 260 figure is a “significant undercount,” due to limited contact tracing in various states and the resistance of rallygoers to seek testing, any true figure finding a higher number would likely remain a fraction of the astronomical number cited by the IZA researchers.
The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, also came to its $12.2 billion public health price tag by using an estimated average cost of $46,000 per patient to treat the coronavirus. That would assume each of the more than 266,000 people who were supposedly infected by the rally faced a severe case of the illness requiring hospitalization. Given the pandemic coverage since February documenting hospital readiness and bed availability, that increase would be one Americans no doubt would have heard about.
On Tuesday, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem slammed the paper’s finding’s as “fiction,” while state epidemiologist Joshua Clayton told reporters that the results “do not align with what we know.”
“What they did is they took a snapshot in time, and they did a lot of speculation and some back-of-the-napkin math, and made up some numbers and published them,” Noem added during a Fox News appearance Wednesday, going on to criticize the study for being conducted by a team of economists rather than scientific researchers. She also condemned the negative media coverage of South Dakota.
I know the national media does not like what South Dakota has done. They have deemed me as the governor that made all the wrong decisions by letting my people have freedom, by using personal responsibility, but listen, our people are happy. We have big events. We have in South Dakota 124 cases that were tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle bike rally out of a half a million people that came. So what they have done here is completely false.
South Dakota took a balanced approach to fighting #COVID19. Many in the media disagree with our respect for freedom. They'll continue to attack us for the path that we've taken, but South Dakota is proof that freedom works, even in the face of a global pandemic. pic.twitter.com/1vKU3R6Rmk
— Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) September 9, 2020
It was only six months ago that nationwide outlets were targeting Noem’s pandemic response for refraining to follow a one-size-fits-all approach by implementing draconian lockdown at the onset of the public health crisis.
In April, the Washington Post charged Noem’s refusal to sign off on a statewide stay-home order, while nearly the rest of the country remained shut down, as turning South Dakota into a hotspot. The Post had centered in on an outbreak at a major pork processor where nearly all of the state’s new cases had emerged at the time. and which still would never have shut down even under a shelter-in-place order since employees in the food industry are considered essential workers.
Meanwhile, the feature photo for the Post story prominently introduced Noem emerging into the national spotlight with a “crazy eyes” photo reminiscent of Newsweek’s infamous 2011 photo of Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachman.
Noem further defended her approach to combating the coronavirus on “Fox & Friends” Wednesday. While government lockdowns likely lead to more problems than the disease itself, Noem emphasized that models warned of thousands of South Dakotans overwhelming the hospitals, but that instead the state has seen less than 100 on a “typical day.”
As of Wednesday morning, the South Dakota Department of Health is reporting only 68 individuals currently hospitalized over the virus.
“We’re taking the virus seriously, but we’re also recognizing that there is consequences to what we’ve seen happen in other states that shutting down businesses, stopping people’s way of life, has some devastating impacts on them and their ability to put food on the table for their families,” Noem said. “We’ve taken a very balanced approach in South Dakota. I know the media hates it. I know they’re going to continue to come after me and my decision-making… But I still believe that in our state it has worked out for our people and that they appreciate it.”