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The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Set Off A Surge Of COVID Cases In South Dakota

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn now to South Dakota, where COVID cases are once again surging after hundreds of thousands of people gathered earlier this month for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Well, the surge comes after health officials there were seeing some of the lowest numbers since the pandemic began. Monument Health, a hospital group in the southwestern part of the state, was even getting ready to declare its first day of zero COVID patients. Instead, hospitals are once again overwhelmed. Well, joining me now - Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs for Monument Health. He's on the line from Rapid City.

Dr. Kurra, welcome.

SHANKAR KURRA: A pleasure to be here, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How bad is the COVID situation where you are? What are you seeing in your hospitals?

KURRA: Yes. Like you pointed out, it is very dire. We are full. The ICU is full, and the numbers are rising. So at one point in June, we just had three COVID inpatients. And now we're at 77. So that is a dramatic increase. And we saw that increase only towards late July. And then the dramatic increase began immediately after the rally.

KELLY: And the rally - again, that was earlier this month, so in early August. So what kind of line - how direct a line can you draw between the Sturgis rally and this spike?

KURRA: Yeah. The Sturgis rally even last year was followed by a large rise in cases locally here, and this year we had about 500,000 folks gathered in the town of Sturgis, mostly bike enthusiasts. And, you know, it is inevitable. This virus, the way it replicates, is close human-to-human transmission. And there were folks shoulder-to-shoulder in bars and tattoo parlors and, you know, even gathered in the town for what you would call a mass selfie every noon to show the large attendance.

KELLY: Well, did anyone say - any town officials say, hang on; maybe this isn't a great idea this year; we're still in the middle of a pandemic, and last year it led to a bunch of cases?

KURRA: Yeah. Last year, the town debated that. And, you know, this year there was a sense of inevitability, the fact that you can't stop this and this is a gathering of the biker enthusiasts of the country. And that's kind of quite unfortunate. But people just resigned to the fact that this is going to happen.

KELLY: How does vaccination play into this? What is the vaccination rate in South Dakota? And the patients who are turning up in your hospitals now - what is their vaccination status?

KURRA: Yeah. I mean, we have across South Dakota just about 50% vaccination rate. But in the counties here on the west side of the state - Pennington, Meade, Lawrence - these counties anywhere from 35 to 40%. And what we've noticed all along is, you know, most of our - vast majority of our admissions are unvaccinated. And we do have a few vaccinated folks that get admitted as well. But it's really the vast majority is unvaccinated being admitted to the hospital. And one other thing we noticed - that not only are they sicker. The percentage of folks that need ICU-level care has certainly increased from last year.

KELLY: I'm just thinking - I know we spoke to you last year after the surge in cases after the 2020 Sturgis rally. What is it like to be going through this all over again?

KURRA: Yeah. It's almost deja vu, a reboot. We knew this. We all anticipated this. This is no surprise to any of us in the health care world. We prepared for it. Unfortunately, I have to say that this is entirely preventable. There were no measures to mitigate or suppress any of the spread. No one was wearing a mask, or at any point did we check to see if they were vaccinated or do any tests. We did provide free testing, but that's not how you stop a spread.

KELLY: Dr. Shankar Kurra of Monument Health in South Dakota, thank you for speaking with us.

KURRA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.