Here’s a question that probably needs to be asked at this point: Could Yankton’s Riverboat Days last month be viewed as a COVID-19 super-spreader event?
It’s a tough question (in more ways than one) that merits at least a little thought since Yankton County’s COVID infection numbers have spiked in the three-plus weeks since the festival. On Riverboat Days weekend, the South Dakota Department of Health’s (DOH) online COVID portal showed the county with about 25 active cases; earlier this week, that number crossed the 100-case threshold. (It slipped down to 98 Thursday.) And since Riverboat Days, the county has seen six days with double-digit increases in positive tests.
When you throw in other factors — such as the huge crowds that flocked to the festival and the fact that there were probably only about five of us who wore masks during the celebration — wondering about the festival’s super-spreader potential in hindsight isn’t really out of line.
However, for numerous reasons, we’ll probably never know, and perhaps it doesn’t even matter quite as much as it once did.
For one thing, the latest COVID wave, fueled by the Delta variant, has hit everywhere across the nation and was bound to sweep through this region, Riverboat Days or no Riverboat Days.
Secondly, tracking cases doesn’t seem to be a primary mission of health officials anymore. It would be difficult for them to connect all the dots that intersected at Riverboat Days — or any other major events — with any cases that popped up afterwards, unless there was direct, irrefutable contact.
Third, Riverboat Days didn’t happen in a vacuum, or anything close to it. If you wonder about the spreading potential of the Yankton festival, then you also have to scrutinize Dakota Fest in Mitchell, the Sioux Empire Fair in Sioux Falls, the South Dakota State Fair in Huron, the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island, the various county fairs in the area, Wagner’s Labor Day celebration and so on. And you’d also have to take into account that the new school year started around the time of Riverboat Days, and some area schools are already having issues with COVID cases.
Fourth, Riverboat Days was largely (although not exclusively) an outdoor festival. While there were a lot of people on hand and a few individual events (such as the Jo Dee Messina concert) were jam-packed, the outdoor nature of the celebration was probably a plus.
Finally, one thing that Riverboat Days and other events like it this summer had going for them was the benefit of vaccines, which of course were not here last year when practically everything was scrapped. I would estimate that, for instance, the Riverboat Days crowds tend to skew slightly (but not greatly) older than, say, a baseball tournament or a concert, and it stands to reason that more of these people were probably vaccinated and also tend to take a few more precautions. (This behavioral pattern arguably shows up in the DOH case breakdown by age groups: Right now, South Dakota has had more COVID cases diagnosed in the 10-19 age group than the 60s, 70s or 80s/older groups.) So, the vaccines that some people are railing against so furiously have likely done more than anything else to make things like Riverboat Days, as well as summertime as we remember it, look a lot more like normal — or even happen at all.
Still, one can’t help but think about such things, especially given the latest COVID surge and the memories we all have of last year when we had fewer defenses at our disposal.
At this point, whatever I say about vaccines, masking and other defense techniques probably won’t register with anyone. Most people have made up their minds one way or another on such things.
However, if you DO want more evidence, look around. A degree of normality has returned, in large part, because of the vaccination issue. Meanwhile, a new surge also threatens us, according to CDC statistical patterns from across the country, because of the vaccination issue. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
One thing all this could mean is that so-called super-spreader events may be viewed somewhat differently now than, say, a year ago. Today, it may not be so much a matter of how many people are gathered, but rather how many of them are vaccinated, as well as masked, healthy and generally prepared. And that approach has been a game changer, at least so far — one that we can control. It’s really up to us.
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