'Screw COVID -- I went to Sturgis': Health officials fear another superspreader event fueled by annual motorcycle rally

Last year, CDC-affiliated researchers said the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota — where vendors infamously hocked T-shirts saying "Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis" — ultimately "had many characteristics of a superspreading event," leading to more than 260,000 cases of the virus nationwide.

Now, with the nation gripped by another wave of COVID-19 due to the more-contagious Delta variant, health officials fear history will repeat itself as 700,000 people descend on South Dakota's Black Hills this weekend, which would represent a 250,000 attendance increase from last year and the largest ever turnout.

Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health hospital in nearby Rapid City, noted that his staff is already overwhelmed during the rally due to injuries caused by motorcycle crashes and other incidents.

"This could be a superspreader. We don't want it to be, but that's the reality," Kurra told CBS News.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told the Associated Press: "I understand how people want to move on from this pandemic — God knows I want to — but the reality is you can't ignore it. You can't just tell the virus you're done with it."

The Department of Health in neighboring Minnesota issued this statement: "The risk increases with larger groups and longer durations of exposure, especially in settings where there may be many unvaccinated people and social distancing and wearing masks aren't routinely practiced. Any event or setting that is conducive to spreading the virus will continue to allow more variants to develop, undermining the gains we have already made with this virus."

Carol Fellner, a local resident who's concerned about a fresh outbreak of cases, said: "The rally is a behemoth, and you cannot stop it. I feel absolutely powerless."

Among those appearing at this year's rally will be Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who dismissed last year's CDC superspreader report as "fiction" and an "attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis."

Unlike at the recent Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, Sturgis attendees will not be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Meade County, home to Sturgis, has a vaccination rate of only 37 percent, and while case rates in South Dakota remain relatively low, they increased by 68 percent in the last week of July.

Although outdoor events are generally considered safer when it comes to COVID transmission, recent gatherings in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Milwaukee have been linked to significant outbreaks.

Watch a report from CBS News below.