If Woodstock occured today, it would be derided as a “superspreader” event. Superspreader events are events or gatherings (such as a sporting match, religious service, birthday or wedding) at which an infected individual(s) infects a disproportionate number of other individuals, thereby accelerating community spread of a disease.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, a superspreader event is one in which the rate of reproduction of the virus is above the basic reproduction number, R0, which is estimated to be 2.2 to 3.6 for exponential growth models.
Attention-grabbing headlines have bombarded us for months, decrying large events and even family gatherings as “superspreader” events that pose an imminent threat to public health. The typical news trajectory is to raise tremendous public alarm in the planning stages and when the event happens. Once it is over, there is mostly silence, thus leaving the impression that something terrible happened without any real empirical evidence.
While major news outlets are quick to disseminate doomsday predictions surrounding ‘superspreader’ events, a comparison of the predictions to the actual outcomes of such events shows that they have often been exaggerated. The following seven cases exemplify how morbidly inaccurate media coverage of “superspreader” events has been and reveal a pervasive lack of follow-up on the actual outcomes of the events in question.
Boston’s international biotech conference held on February 26-27, 2020, is cited as one of the US’s earliest “superspreader” events. Based on a Science study, a Forbes article blames the event for leading to 300,000 cases by November.
Despite heavily restricted testing – only symptomatic individuals and those who had come into contact with a known positive case were tested at this stage of the pandemic – and an acknowledgment that “evidence […] has been based largely on time-series data showing an increase in cases following [superspreading events],” the study maintains that the particular Covid strain was “first reported in the USA in patients associated with the conference and there is no evidence that it had entered the country independent of its appearance there[.]”
However, shortly after the conference there was a national “two weeks to flatten the curve” in addition to eight months of further lockdowns and restrictions to travel, dining and gatherings. Of 175 attendees, only 8 later tested positive for Covid and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s contact tracing efforts only “identified approximately 100 cases associated with this conference.”
By focusing on the conference, the piece seems to imply that, had the conference not taken place, the unique virus strains that were present at the conference wouldn’t have gone on to infect others in the U.S. While those first infected with the C2416T and G26233T variants of the coronavirus attended the Biogen conference, this does not mean that the Biogen conference created these variants or that the infected attendees wouldn’t have spread it otherwise – especially given the general ambivalence towards the virus at the time, when U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said: “The immediate risk to the general American public remains low.”
The annual Winter Party Festival in Miami Beach, Florida, has been a staple of the LGBTQ community for 28 years, taking place on the first weekend of March since 1993. Lasting a week and including more than 5,500 attendees, the New York Times followed up on the event a month later in their piece, “The Costly Toll of Not Shutting Down Spring Break Earlier.” The Times detailed that “38 people had reported that they were symptomatic or had tested positive for the coronavirus in the weeks following the event” and that “two people who attended the festival had died.”
Throughout the piece, The Times quotes Floridians who blame the lack of government oversight, coordination and imposition of lockdown measures for the spread of Covid. For example, Mayor Jerry Demings of Orange County laments, “We were left to our own devices to come up with strategies ourselves because of the lack of direction from the federal government and the governor’s office.” Mayor Suarez of Miami is also quoted as describing the lax restrictions on spring breakers and the music festival as a “national embarrassment.”
Amidst widespread disapproval of Governor Ron DeSantis’ Covid response, the Washington Examiner recently published a piece detailing the success of Florida’s less restrictive approach to Covid as compared to outcomes in stringent lockdown states such as California and New York:
It was hard to ignore that despite the doomsayers, and there were many doomsayers, Florida’s pandemic outcomes were similar or better than other populous states. As of Jan. 25, New York had 218 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents. California had 94. Florida had 118. Even Texas had stricter reopening rules than Florida and yet had 117 deaths per 100,000.
In short, Florida has been faring well in terms of deaths per capita despite not placing nearly as harsh restrictions on what might be described as “societal superspreader events,” such as indoor dining, business operations, and in-person school attendance.
New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order having ended on June 15, the 17th annual PorcFest took place at Roger’s Campground in Lancaster, New Hampshire. Operating well below 50% of its maximum 3,000-person capacity as mandated by state authorities, approximately 450 libertarians took part in the event. The local newspaper, the Caledonian Record, reported that “those [attendees who] wanted to maintain social distance wore orange bracelets, but none were visible on Saturday.”
Another local outlet, Salmon Press, interviewed the owner of the campsite, Crosby Peck, who described “[seeing] a considerable amount of people wearing masks.” Attendees say this is false; virtually nobody wore masks. Salmon Press reiterated concerns expressed by North County community members about the event:
Calls were made to the Attorney General’s office and Peck did receive a letter from Weeks Hospital stating concerns for the community if a gathering of that magnitude was held in the middle of a pandemic, in a place with no cases.
Several of the featured speakers of the event recount being contacted by The New York Times, Associated Press and NPR, leading up to and during the event. They deleted the emails, thus denying the press another chance to raise alarm. A poll of attendees afterwards asked if anyone came down sick. Not one person said yes. Despite the concern of locals and the media, new coronavirus cases were actually lower in New Hampshire following the event than preceding it: a 7-day average of 30 on the 22nd of June compared to an average of 22 in the two weeks following the event on July 12th, while in Coos County (NH) where PorcFest was held there was a 7-day average of 0 new cases as of June 22 and a 7-day average of 1 new case on July 12.
Like the Biogen conference, the disease fear surrounding this event was ridiculously overhyped.
Between August 7 and 16, approximately 460,000 people gathered in Sturgis, South Dakota for the annual Motorcycle Rally involving “indoor and outdoor events such as concerts and drag racing.” Shortly after the event, many prominent media publications swiftly denounced the rally-goers as reckless. The New York Times’s coverage was explicit: “Meet the motorcyclists gathered in Sturgis, S.D., for a giant annual rally, with plenty of regard for one another but little for the pandemic.”
Moral indignation intensified after the event, as other major media outlets echoed Mother Jones’ headline: “Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Is Now Linked to More Than 250,000 Coronavirus Cases.” The headlines were all based on a single study published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics which projected 266,796 new cases over the subsequent four weeks after the rally – equivalent to 19% of new cases in the whole U.S. over that period.
Moreover, researchers at John Hopkins described the IZA’s methodology as “relatively weak” and advised the public to interpret the IZA study “cautiously.” As our colleague Ethan Yang summarized, the study analyzed anonymized cell-phone data and extrapolated “case trends in counties with high, moderate and low numbers of attendees” to documented cases in these counties. As Ethan notes such an approach relies on “strong assumptions that rarely hold in the real world” and can lead to estimates that are “not just off by a little,” but can be “completely wrong.”
Despite its scoffing headline, “A Motorcycle Rally in a Pandemic? ‘We Kind of Knew What Was Going to Happen,’” The New York Times concluded, three months after the rally, that the Sturgis event resulted in three orders of magnitude fewer cases than predicted:
In all, cases spread to more than 20 states and at least 300 people[…] A man in his 60s who attended the rally contracted the virus and died. He is the only rally goer whose death has been attributed to the coronavirus.
Disturbingly, The New York Times acknowledges that the IZA forecast inflamed tensions between Sturgis residents and local officials to a dangerous degree: “The death threats ramped up another notch after a study suggested the event resulted in an estimated 250,000 coronavirus infections across the country.”
Following Trump’s September 26th nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, media outlets raised concerns about the Rose Garden gathering in the midst of the pandemic. Several weeks after the announcement, NBC News ran the headline “Fauci calls Amy Coney Barrett ceremony in Rose Garden ‘superspreader event’” following Dr. Fauci’s interview with CBS News’s Steven Portnoy:
Well, I think the data speaks for themselves. We had a superspreader event in the White House and it was in a situation where people were crowded together and were not wearing masks.
One week after the event, NPR reported that 8 attendees tested positive for the coronavirus, including the former President and First Lady themselves. Despite the relatively low number of cases resulting from the gathering, Google Trends reflects increased internet searches for superspreader events following the Rose Garden announcement:
Meanwhile, USA Today continues to update its article “Here’s everyone at the White House Rose Garden SCOTUS event now called a likely ‘superspreader.’ Help us ID them all.” In this piece, USA Today encourages its readers to identify attendees they recognize in photos of the event, numbering faces and adding names to them to facilitate their campaign of public shaming.
“Thousands party in streets after Alabama win, despite virus” was AP’s description of University of Alabama supporters’ celebrations following a football victory over Ohio State on January 11.
AP impugns the character of the revelers as irresponsibly “ignoring pleas for safety at the height of the coronavirus pandemic… [in which] more than 5,500 people have died in Alabama… and about 408,000 have tested positive.” Other media outlets followed suit to condemn the gatherings as a ‘superspreader’ event.
While there has been an uptick in student cases the week after the event, this was also the first week students were back on campus following winter break, complicating the attribution of the rise in case numbers. In fact, there was actually a significant decline in cases in Alabama in the two weeks following the celebrations: a 7-day average of 4,036 cases on the 12th of January compared to 2,785 as of the 29th.
After a summer of demonstrations against police brutality and protests over lockdown orders, framing of the protests as superspreader events appears influenced by the political leanings of the publications reporting on them. At the height of calls for police reform and racial justice in July, Fox News ran a headline claiming “Anti-police demonstrations may have sparked new coronavirus cases…” A month later The New York Times published the findings of a joint study between Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers Universities that concluded, “The racial justice protests earlier this summer were not the driving force behind a spike in U.S. COVID-19 infections…”
On April 30th, armed protestors gathered inside the Michigan capitol demanding an end to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders. That day, The Guardian published an article attributing the spread of Covid to such anti-lockdown protests with the headline, “US lockdown protests may have spread virus widely, cell phone data suggests.” At the time of writing, almost 10 months later, Fox News has run no such piece. Michael Powell, a writer of 13 years at The New York Times, called attention to such discrepancies in coverage of political demonstrations as superspreader events in his piece entitled, “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What.”
Instead of objectively reporting on the risk associated with participating in mass gatherings – regardless of the causes motivating them – many media companies selectively scrutinized events based on the political ideology of the protestors. Rather than joining forces to check the powers of government and support the constitutional right of all to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances, much of the media instead chose to delegitimize such activities and those participating in them.
The anxiety surrounding superspreader events has been used to justify draconian lockdown policies such as stay-at-home orders and closures of so-called “nonessential” businesses. In an international comparison between countries that implemented such policies and those that did not, Stanford University researchers found “no evidence of large anti-contagion effects from mandatory stay-at-home and business closure policies.” Perhaps if the media reported on these findings, there wouldn’t be a superspreader LAPD task force forcibly dispersing “nonessential” gatherings.
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