- President Donald Trump said that since he’s far from his crowds at rallies, he’s not worried about getting COVID-19.
- The layer of people directly surrounding a carrier are most likely to catch the virus.
- While a rally isn’t as bad as a wedding full of hugging and dancing, it’s still bad.
Before his campaign rally in front of thousands at a manufacturing plant in Henderson, Nevada on Sunday, President Donald Trump told a Nevada newspaper that he was exempt from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s law limiting indoor gatherings to 50 people due to COVID-19 concerns. “I’m on a stage and it’s very far away,” Trump told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “And so I’m not at all concerned.”
Trump’s comments signal his belief that maintaining distance is important in slowing the spread of COVID-19; in the same Review-Journal interview, he criticized a reporter for not staying far enough away. Coverage of Trump’s indoor rally, however, which the president says drew 5,000 attendees, has mentioned the idea of “superspreader” events, where it takes just one person to infect many others.
While many of Trump’s supporters sat close together on white folding chairs, and face masks were only required for the attendees directly behind the president in the television shot, per the Washington Post, it’s too soon to tell if the Nevada rally was indeed a superspreader event. And the research on such events at this juncture is still inconclusive: A non-peer-reviewed research paper tied last month’s massive Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota to 250,000 new COVID-19 cases, but even Snopes says that claim is unproven.
But one real superspreader event we can examine is a small wedding held in Maine in August. The Boston Globe reported on the wedding, where “few of the 62 wedding and reception attendees wore masks.” The small town of Millinocket had zero recorded cases of COVID-19 before this wedding. After the event, everything changed.
The Globe reports:
“An unidentified wedding guest reported feeling symptoms a day after the ceremony. Within four days, several others fell ill, according to state authorities. In all, nearly half of the attendees, 30 in all who ranged in age from 4 to 78 years old, would test positive.”
By the time the Globe published its feature late last month, Maine’s health officials had linked 123 cases directly to the wedding, which also violated Maine’s law limiting gathering size during the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) covers superspreader events (SSEs) in detail, including factors that increase risk of a situation becoming an SSE. It’s rarely as simple as one person coughing a brand-new virus on another person, the CDC explains:
“SSEs are not limited to emerging infectious diseases. In the early 20th century, Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary), an asymptomatic typhoid carrier who worked as a cook, infected >50 persons. [Many tuberculosis patients,] even those with smear-positive, cavitary tuberculosis, were not highly infectious but 3 of 77 patients accounted for 73% of the infectious burden.”
At the Maine wedding, the hosts officially took temperatures of all the guests, which rules out certain kinds of symptomatic carriers. Scientists and mainstream press have debated the role of “asymptomatic carriers” in the pandemic, but it’s likely an asymptomatic carrier infected others in the wedding group.
“Environmental factors include population density and the availability and use of infection prevention and control measures in healthcare facilities,” the CDC explains. “Behavioral factors include cough hygiene, social customs, health-seeking behavior, and adherence to public health guidance.”
Social customs are crucial here. In 2010, researchers wrote about how students graduating from a university insisted on shaking hands despite the H1N1 pandemic at the time. “A graduation is a socially significant gathering and a ritually charged ceremony marking a personally and socially important transition,” those researchers wrote. And as handshakes are to graduation, hugs and dancing are to weddings.