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Shawn Vestal: Our narratives often roar past the facts, but the Sturgis facts, again, are bad

If it’s a pandemic August in South Dakota, it must be Sturgis time – time again to count the rising cases, watch the divergent narratives spin out, and reflect on the unshakeable persistence of belief over fact.

Because as the cases in South Dakota soar, the delta version of the motorcycle rally is shaping up to look a lot like the alpha version, which sent COVID-19 home with a significant number of bikers.

Last year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was held in the middle of the summer surge of the pandemic, a big middle finger to caution and good sense nearly a half a million people strong. Epidemiologists warned that it was a terrible idea. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, insisted everything would be fine and refused to apply any precautions whatsoever, treating the matter with the kind of proud, reckless defiance that has come to characterize so much of the political response to the pandemic.

The rally proceeded as planned – with the sale of defiant “Screw COVID. I Went to Sturgis” T-shirts added to the usual mix of outdoor rallies and packed bars. As predicted, there was a surge of infections that followed rallygoers home all over the country.

Caseloads roughly doubled in South Dakota in the weeks after the rally, and a CDC report published in April of this year showed that there were “widespread” infections across the country tracing back to Sturgis – 649 infections in 39 states, including infections passed from rallygoers to others back home. That figure is surely an undercount, given that several states did not supply data and that many people interviewed by contact-tracers showed “a reluctance to acknowledge attendance at the Sturgis rally,” the paper said.

But in the early days following last year’s rally, before harder evidence emerged, some researchers ran a scientific model using cellphone data to estimate how super the spreading had been. It produced some numbers that came to be seen as wildly overblown – estimating that more than 266,000 cases came from the rally, spreading all over the country to various counties.

Because the study had included the assertion that some cases had come home to Spokane from Sturgis, I wrote a column about the study, treating it uncritically as a reliable set of estimates. (The health district says three Spokane County cases have been associated with Sturgis.)

The study immediately attracted politically motivated opposition from COVID minimizers, many of whom attacked both the numbers and the underlying premise that large groups of unmasked people in bars might spread the virus, or that infected people might bring the disease home.

But the study also drew criticism from real scientists, who said the estimates were wildly overblown. The critics included the University of Washington’s Carl Bergstrom, a biologist who co-authored the book, “Calling Bullshit,” an invaluable text for sorting through what’s true and false in our factual world.

The numbers in the study, many claimed credibly, were just too high. The underlying premise that Sturgis was a superspreader event, however, was definitely not.

In the end, it was the kind of muddle that allowed people with contradictory beliefs to turn the event into “proof” they were right all along.

Shortly after the first column, having seen some of the criticisms of that initial study, I wrote a second. In that column, I tried to address what critics said were the shortcomings of the modeling and cop to the reasons that I was too quick to give the study credence in the first place: it confirmed what I already believed about events like Sturgis, which is that it – like the Amy Coney Barrett welcome party at the White House – was inexcusably reckless.

The response to that second column was instructive. Many readers took it as a wholesale, thoroughgoing admission that all of their COVID skepticism and denial was correct, and seemed to think I had rejected the entire set of beliefs you might call COVID credulity – the idea that the disease is real, the CDC is credible, and that we should take proactive public measures limiting its spread.

Something similar happened on the other side of the issue, though to a lesser degree. Readers wrote to say that I should not have “eaten crow” because cases did rise in South Dakota, and cases did spread outward to other states, even if these particular numbers were dubious.

It was frustrating, though it should not have been surprising. The fact that we occupy different worlds in terms of COVID credulity is beyond obvious, and is now the main reason we’re still stuck in the pandemic.

We all have confirmation bias, but not all confirmation bias lives at the same distance from the facts. People operating with beliefs based on scientific expertise and public health guidance and those operating with beliefs shaped by Tucker Carlson and one doctor on YouTube both have confirmation biases, but they are not equally distorting. If you believe Rand Paul but not Anthony Fauci, your lens is much more powerful than those biased in the opposite direction.

Which brings me back to Sturgis. The rally just happened again, wide open as hell. The governor has continued to deny and resist, flatly claiming, incorrectly, that last year’s rally was not a superspreader event, and refusing to rally behind efforts to get more shots into arms in her very-under-vaccinated state. Of course, that makes her a hero to some, considered a possible contender for higher office in a party where taking the pandemic seriously is a liability.

The parallel narratives are entrenched, and we’re all entrenched in the results.

But the very early, far-from-final facts emerging after the rally are bad, just as they were bad last year. These facts exist outside our narratives, like trees falling, unheard, in the forest. South Dakota has leapt to the top of the most-infectious list. The county where the rally was held went from nearly zero cases to about 30 per day – an increase of more than 1,000% over two weeks. Its test positivity rate is the highest in the state at nearly a third. Hospitalizations shot up 200%.

As for deaths, that lagging indicator? Stay tuned.

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