COVID-19 cases tied to MN campaign events — but full impact is unclear

People walk in front of a giant flag.
A giant American flag waves in the wind as attendants wait for the president to arrive for a rally in Bemidji, Minn., Sept. 18.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

President Donald Trump’s September campaign rallies in Bemidji and Duluth drew thousands of people, many of whom drove from miles around and crowded together to hear him speak.

The events were outdoors, but by all accounts, attendees were rarely socially distanced. Most did not wear masks. They chanted, shoulder to shoulder.

Public health officials worried these events might cause a delayed spike in COVID-19 cases. Typically, they start to see positive cases five to seven days after the date of infection. And it can take weeks to understand the full impact of an event that sparks a COVID-19 outbreak.

Now it has been weeks — and some infections have been traced back to the rallies and a smaller campaign visit by Trump’s presidential rival, Joe Biden — but the numbers for each of the events fall far short of what health officials initially feared.

A man speaks to other people in a workshop.
Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden tours Jerry Alander Carpenter Training Center on September 18, 2020 in Hermantown, Minnesota.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Here are the official tallies, from the State Department of Health:

Local health officials say the impact seems relatively minimal. Beltrami County Public Health Director Cynthia Borgen said Trump’s Bemidji rally so far has been connected to fewer cases than a nearby wedding that happened the next day — which has been connected to more than 20 positive cases.

“The wedding had a lot fewer people than the rally,” she said. “But there was an indoor reception. There was dancing and conversation. People were close to each other for a long time.”

Holding the rally outdoors at the Bemidji airport probably helped minimize the spread of COVID-19, she said.

In Duluth, St. Louis County spokesperson Dana Kazel said contact tracers only identified two local residents who tested positive for COVID-19 after attending Trump’s rally — even though Trump himself was likely infectious during his visit there.

It’s possible the political events weren’t as risky as many feared they might be. But despite the low numbers, Kazel has her doubts.

“Are there more cases?” she said. “Possibly.”

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, they go through the contact tracing process: Someone from the local or state health department calls them, and asks a host of questions — including whether they’ve recently attended any large gatherings.

“It’s a yes or no question,” Kazel said. “And only about 30 percent of people answer it.”

At a county board meeting last week in Bemidji, Beltrami County Family Health Program Manager Megan Heuer said she was concerned that COVID-19 numbers from the rally there might not ultimately be accurate.

“Some people aren’t as forthcoming on events they have attended,” she said.

It’s hard to tell how accurate the tallies are, if patients aren’t willing to answer contact tracers’ questions.

According to Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Erin McHenry, an analysis of the Bemidji area’s recent rise in COVID-19 cases paints a worrying — if somewhat blurry — picture.

Almost 300 new cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in Beltrami County in the last month and a half. Almost half of those occurred two to 10 days after the Bemidji campaign rally and the wedding that happened the next day. If someone was infected at either of those events, symptoms would likely have shown up during that time frame.

“We cannot say definitively,” McHenry wrote in a statement. “However, these events appear, based on case characteristics, to be likely drivers of increases in COVID-19 cases in Beltrami County.”

A man speaks at a podium.
President Trump addresses the crowd during a rally in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18.
Evan Frost | MPR News

State health officials for weeks have been raising alarm bells amid rising case numbers and pandemic fatigue. They’ve warned of the risks that social gatherings like weddings, funerals and parties where people let down their guard, don’t wear masks and don’t social distance, especially when those gatherings are indoors.

So far, they say, it’s been small get-togethers that seem to be behind the spike in coronavirus cases across northern Minnesota — and statewide. This week saw Minnesota’s highest tally of new daily cases since the pandemic began — as state health officials said they are deeply worried about the coronavirus’ relentless spread across the state.

They implored people to wear masks in indoor public spaces, socially distance and take other measures to stem the spread even when gathering with family and friends.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.