Health officials in eight states report COVID-19 cases from people who were at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally earlier this month. Hundreds of thousands of visitors attended - and South Dakota is now doing mass COVID testing for anyone in Sturgis
The state has hosted a couple of the largest public gatherings since the pandemic began. That includes a Mt. Rushmore fireworks show for thousands earlier this summer.
As a reporter, I covered those events. My exposure to the crowds made me wonder what it takes to get a COVID-19 test in South Dakota.
I went to the Sturgis motorcycle rally – twice.
Both times I wore a mask, and the second time, I wore an N95 mask. My mic was on a long poll to gather audio.
There was a large crowd at Sturgis this year. Official estimates come in around 460,000 -- 200,000 more than original estimates.
In some places, large public events have prompted counties and states to open up COVID testing to people who do not have any virus symptoms. Protests and riots this summer over a Black man who was killed by police made health officials in Minnesota offer COVID-19 tests to anyone who was on the streets for those events.
So I decided to seek out a COVID test.
Since I live in Rapid City, I called up the Monument Health Nurse Triage Line.
I told the nurse I attended the rally twice for work.
I was told that Monument Health is only testing people who show symptoms of the virus.
Emily Leech is the director of Laboratory Services at Monument Health in Rapid City. She says the west river health system is following the direction of the South Dakota Department of Health.
“To make sure that we’re being great stewards of our supplies and reagents in the laboratory world,” Leech says. “National shortages of testing supplies and reagents to be able to run the test have impacted us here in western South Dakota as well.”
Leech says that means they prioritize testing for people with symptoms so they know who is sick and can care for them. That also limits the number of test kits they use.
“Testing our symptomatic patients throughout the system, we’re at capacity for the testing supplies we have,” Leech says. “Anything that we can’t test in-house we sent to Mayo Clinic, which is our reference laboratory.”
In addition to the mass testing for Sturgis residents, the state will provide testing for people in Huron who either work or volunteer at the state fair in September.
Josh Clayton is the state epidemiologist.
He says the initial testing push was to build testing capacity for symptomatic people. Now, the state does recommend testing asymptomatic people who have close contacts to a COVID 19 case.
“That is our way of prioritizing—first and foremost—symptomatic individuals. Secondary to that, asymptomatic people with that close contact," Clayton says. "The larger testing of asymptomatic individuals is not currently a recommendation by the Department of Health.”
Not everyone is pleased with that recommendation.
"I've heard many stories about people who've either been exposed to COVID 19 and are asymptomatic," Representative Erin Healy says. She is a Democrat from Sioux Falls. "Or who are symptomatic, even, they're having trouble getting tested. Som of them are even having trouble getting timely results if they are tested."
She says the state should test more people to get an accurate picture of the virus.
“It most certainly does help the Department of Health characterize the prevalence and the spread and the contagiousness of the disease,” Healy says. “I don't think South Dakota is testing nearly enough people."
North Dakota is one of more than a half-dozen states reporting COVID infections since the motorcycle rally. South Dakota Department of Health officials warn of additional exposures at five popular biker spots in the Black Hills.
It’s been 14 days since I attended the rally and am symptom free.
On Monday, the CDC updated its guidance on testing for people who come into close contact with someone who has a COVID 19 infection for at least 15 minutes but don’t have symptoms. It does not recommend testing, unless a person is vulnerable, or state and local public health officials recommend a test.