Researchers find Trump campaign rallies likely caused 700 coronavirus deaths

Stanford University team follows up on virus spread in 18 counties that hosted president’s reelection gatherings, discovers they led to 30,000 infections

US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Central Wisconsin Airport, in Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 17, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Central Wisconsin Airport, in Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 17, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Stanford University researchers have concluded that reelection campaign rallies by US President Donald Trump led to 30,000 additional coronavirus infections, and, as a result, likely caused at least 700 deaths.

“The communities in which Trump rallies took place paid a high price in terms of disease and death,” wrote the team from the school’s Economics Department in the document published Friday on a social science research website.

Trump has faced criticism over his campaign rallies due to fears that they could help spread the virus. Media reports from the events, usually attended by thousands of people, have shown little social distancing among attendees and no enforcement of face-mask wearing. Trump himself almost never appears in public in a mask and last month was diagnosed with COVID-19, from which he quickly recovered after being treated with a battery of medicines.

Led by economist B. Douglas Bernheim, the researchers studied 18 of Trump’s rallies that were held between June 20 and September 22. Three of the events were indoors.

“Our analysis strongly supports the warnings and recommendations of public health officials concerning the risk of COVID-19 transmission at large group gatherings, particularly when the degree of compliance with guidelines concerning the use of masks and social distancing is low,” the researchers wrote.

They noted that the virus also likely spread beyond those who were actually at the rallies to infect local communities.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump listen as he speaks during a campaign rally at Central Wisconsin Airport, in Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 17, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Biden spokesperson Andrew Gates said in statement that the findings showed Trump’s campaign strategy was “costing hundreds of lives and sparking thousands of cases with super spreader rallies that only serve his own ego.”

Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella told Politico that those who attend the rallies were required to undergo temperature checks, and were given masks and hand sanitizer.

“Americans have the right to gather under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States, and we take strong precautions for our campaign events,” Parella said.

Infections were traced for 10 weeks after the events, with the researchers using “predictive modeling” to compare the trajectories of cases in counties that hosted Trump rallies with those that did not, in order to identify the effect of the rallies.

Infections in hosting counties were compared to 100 similar counties where Trump did not campaign. A second round of comparisons was later made to some 200 counties that did not host events. Researchers found that, during the tracing period, hosting counties saw an average of 261 more infections per 100,000 residents than comparable counties that did not host events.

The team was able to take into account other factors that may have explained the differences in infection rates such as population density, underling medical conditions among residents, public health rules on mask wearing, the closure of bars and restaurants, and higher testing rates for virus.

Screen capture from video of Stanford University economist B. Douglas Bernheim.. (YouTube)

Bernheim said he was not able to do a similar comparison to protests that followed the killings of Black Americans earlier in the year, as they were more spontaneous and dispersed, making it hard to put together data.

“The president’s rallies were geographically isolated and temporally isolated,” he told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday. “There was a very good record of where they occurred.”

He also rejected the notion that there was a partisan motive to the timing of the research paper, which was released just days before the presidential elections on Tuesday.

“I’m a scientist,” Bernheim said. “I reason from data to conclusions. In the political sphere, I realize that people reason from conclusions to data. I can’t control that.”

However, Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, warned that the methods in the study were “not particularly robust.”

“There are better ways to look at this data through actual infectious disease epidemic lenses,” Mina told Politico. “It offers a data point, but nothing I would want to draw any strong conclusions from. It is also so overtly political that it makes it hard to distinguish if there were decisions made out of perhaps unrecognized bias.”

In the US, there have been over 9,400,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and over 230,000 deaths.

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