Tens of thousands of bikers gathered in South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally -- raising fears of another superspreader event.
Five people have died already from motorcycle crashes related to the annual event, which sparked a multi-state COVID-19 outbreak last year, and health experts are worried the highly contagious delta variant will make this year's event even more dangerous -- not that attendees care, reported The Daily Beast.
"Only the media," said Sturgis public information officer Christina Steele, with a laugh. "I only hear about that from media. No one is talking about it."
Reporters spoke to one attendee after another who has refused vaccines and hasn't masked up as they pack into the Kid Rock concert or other events.
"I've worked through the whole thing without [the vaccine]," said 54-year-old Jeff Johnson, of Denver, Colorado.
A pair of friends from Blackhawk, South Dakota, were similarly unconcerned about the coronavirus and took off two weeks from work to party in Sturgis.
"No one I know is vaccinated," said 54-year-old Andrew Rick.
But public health experts believe the event will send attendees back home infected with COVID-19 and possibly seed new outbreaks in other states.
"Hope's not a strategy right now -- vaccination is," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota professor of public health and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, "and there will be people who will be infected as a result of this event. The question for everybody is, how many?"
COVID-denying Gov. Kristi Noem, who is vaccinated, kicked off the event, that's expected to draw up to 70,000 people by riding her horse Ice Man and welcoming guests to "freedom," but local medical professionals are already bracing for a new wave of infections.
"Yes, we are very likely as a result of the massive gathering of people during an ongoing pandemic direct witness to a wide dissemination or spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in the region and beyond," said Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of Medical Affairs at Monument Health. "The transmission and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is directly dependent on the immune status of the population. Given that we have low rates of vaccination or immunization, the Sturgis Rally has a high potential of becoming a superspreader event."
Many of the events take place outside, but health experts say that doesn't mitigate the risk.
"Even in outdoor settings, congregating large crowds of unvaccinated and unmasked bikers is a recipe for extreme danger," said Lawrence Gostin, a global health-law expert at Georgetown. "What worries me is not only the fact that these riders will become infected, but also that they will travel back to their hometowns and infect their family, neighbors, and co-workers. The rally is not just a danger for South Dakota, but for the nation."