Trump’s campaign made stops nationwide. Coronavirus cases surged in his wake in at least five places.
Correction: A previous version of this story provided cumulative coronavirus case numbers for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. It has been updated to reflect only the numbers in the two weeks after President Donald Trump’s rally.
As President Donald Trump jetted across the country holding campaign rallies during the past two months, he didn’t just defy state orders and federal health guidelines. He left a trail of coronavirus outbreaks in his wake.
The president has participated in nearly three dozen rallies since mid-August, all but two at airport hangars. A USA TODAY analysis shows COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate than before after at least five of those rallies in the following counties: Blue Earth, Minnesota; Lackawanna, Pennsylvania; Marathon, Wisconsin; Dauphin, Pennsylvania; and Beltrami, Minnesota.
Together, those counties saw 1,500 more new cases in the two weeks following Trump’s rallies than the two weeks before – 9,647 cases, up from 8,069.
Public health officials additionally have linked 16 cases, including two hospitalizations, with the rally in Beltrami County, Minnesota, and one case with the rally in Marathon County, Wisconsin. Outside of the counties identified by USA TODAY with a greater case increase after rallies, officials identified four cases linked to Trump rallies.
Although there’s no way to determine definitively if cases originated at Trump’s rallies, public health experts say the gatherings fly in the face of all recommendations to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
USA TODAY reviewed coronavirus case counts in the counties where Trump attended rallies starting from mid-August through mid-October. The news organization examined the rate of increase in virus cases for the two weeks before and after campaign events. For rallies occurring within the past two weeks, not enough time has passed to draw conclusions.
The earliest post-rally spikes occurred even as the nation’s overall case counts were in decline from a peak in mid-July. When U.S. cases started climbing in mid-September, Trump did not alter his campaign schedule but continued holding an average of four rallies a week.
He stopped first in Minnesota, where Blue Earth County’s coronavirus growth rate was 15% before Trump’s rally, but grew to 25% afterward. Three days later, he was in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, where the coronavirus growth rate jumped from less than 3% before his visit to more than 7% afterward.
Even in states where cases were already rising, the spikes in at least four counties that hosted Trump rallies far surpassed their state’s overall growth rates.
In two counties, it was more than double: Marathon County’s case count surged by 67% after Trump’s visit compared to Wisconsin’s overall growth rate of 29% during the same time. In Beltrami County, Minnesota, it swelled by 35% compared to the state’s 14%.
The newspaper’s analysis did not include surrounding counties, nor could it account for cases where the people attending the rally had traveled from outside the area, including other states. Indeed, most rallies draw crowds from large geographic areas, with some people driving or flying hundreds of miles to attend.
Health experts say it’s impossible to pinpoint the rallies as the direct source of infection or community spread without an intensive outbreak investigation. The contact tracing done by most health departments following new cases can show only that someone who later developed COVID-19 was at the event – but not that the event caused it.
They also said that a variety of factors, including the reopening of public schools, could contribute to the rising case counts. For example, Marathon County is also near the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus, where the school reported 51 coronavirus cases in the two weeks after the rally. However, major school districts in the counties hosting Trump events were taking precautions, such as reduced capacity and hybrid online learning, USA TODAY found.
But experts all agreed that holding large rallies during a pandemic interferes with efforts to contain the virus and can make things worse. This is why officials in at least five states, including two with Republican governors, voiced concerns or issued warnings in advance of the president’s rallies.
“I would ask the president, for once, to put the health of his constituents ahead of his own political fortunes,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said on Sept. 25. Trump has held three rallies in the state since then.
Campaign events where people gather together cheering and screaming can carry the virus far through the crowd, said Shelley Payne, director of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas. Then those infected will take the virus back to their families, friends and coworkers – fanning an outbreak in the community.
“This is true of any respiratory virus; when you’re near people in close contact, you’re going to spread the virus,” Payne said. “And rallies are particularly problematic.”
Campaign rallies fall within a category the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels “highest risk” for the potential to spread the virus that already has claimed the lives of more than 222,000 Americans.
Courtney Parella, deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, defended the rallies and attacked other large gatherings organized to support women’s rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“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, requiring every attendee to have their temperature checked, be provided a mask they’re instructed to wear, and ensuring access to plenty of hand sanitizer,” Parella said in an email statement. “We also have signs at our events instructing attendees to wear their masks.”
In addition to the rallies, Trump has hosted large events at the White House since August, including the Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
That gathering, which drew more than 300 people, has since been labeled a superspreader after 14 guests, including the president, later tested positive for the coronavirus. In all, at least 34 cases have been linked to the White House since late September.
Political experts say the guideline-defying events are part of a strategy by the Trump administration to downplay the seriousness of the virus ahead of the election. It has divided the nation over wearing masks and taking the necessary precautions to contain the virus.
“It’s a trade-off between doing what’s right for public health or what benefits re-election,” said Todd Belt, professor and director of the Political Management Program at The George Washington University. “And over and over, the greater concern for this White House is re-election.”
Targeting small-town America
From conservative Christians with tucked shirts and dress shoes to bikers with long beards and leather, hundreds of Trump supporters waved flags, held signs and donned the red caps as they descended on the small town of Bemidji, located in Beltrami County, Minnesota.
Despite the 250-person limit for gatherings in the state, throngs stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they waited in long lines, cheering on the commander in chief and greeting others as if the global pandemic did not exist. A mix of locals and those who traveled hundreds of miles, the scene at the September rally has played out in small towns across America where Trump has a stronghold.
Charter buses packed full, merchandise vendors lining the streets and counter protests nearby, the spectacles have marked Trump’s campaigns and presidency.
But many of these towns don’t typically draw these types of crowds – and the aftermath is now evident in their COVID-19 cases.
Between mid-August and mid-October, Trump has visited small and mid-sized communities in major swing states with county populations ranging from 47,000 to 310,000.
They also have largely been in conservative communities that in many cases have resisted mask-wearing and social distancing efforts.
Trump, who is seeking a second term, has made these rallies a signature of his campaign. He held several in the first three months of the year but stopped after declaring the coronavirus a national emergency on March 13.
He resumed his tour in late June, holding one event that drew 6,200 mostly unmasked supporters to an indoor arena in Tulsa and another that drew 3,000 to a megachurch in Phoenix. USA TODAY’s analysis did not find that cases in those counties increased faster in the two weeks after either event.
But former presidential candidate Herman Cain died of the coronavirus after attending the Tulsa rally, where eight members of the advance team tested positive for coronavirus. It was deemed a superspreader event. The White House has denied that Trump’s campaign is at fault.
Trump had no rallies in July.
On Aug. 17, he ramped up his schedule and has appeared at an average of four campaign events per week since – pausing only for 11 days in early October after catching the coronavirus.
The rallies, now taking place almost daily, attract an average crowd of about 6,000 people. Some have attracted up to 20,000, according to local news reports. In all, more than 120,000 people have attended his campaign events in the past nine weeks.
Rayla Campbell said she has attended over 100 events to support Trump, including the recent rally this year in New Hampshire.
Campbell, a 38-year-old from Massachusetts who’s running as a Republican write-in candidate for a seat in Congress, has been a staunch Trump supporter from the beginning, citing his patriotism and business acumen. Even with three small children at home, she has no qualms about COVID-19, shaking hands and hugging other rally goers without any masks or social distancing.
“I haven’t gotten so much as a sniffle,” Campbell said. “Nobody that I’ve come in contact with has gotten sick, and I think this whole thing is blown out of proportion.”
Bill Batchelder, a small business owner and volunteer firefighter in Bemidji, supports Trump for the economy. Batchelder was seated behind the president, some 45 feet away, at the rally.
He said that he believes in the dangers of COVID-19 and understands the potential for spread. But he still felt safe, given the temperature checks and mask handouts.
He said Trump attracts everybody from “those who think it’s a joke, to those who take it more seriously, like me.” But he also pointed to the cases at counter-protests, which drew fewer people and still created community spread.
“I was not at all concerned at the Trump rally,” Batchelder said. “I take COVID-19 very seriously. The way I put it is my risk threshold is very low but my precautions are very high.”
Audrey Thayer, who is running for city council in Bemidji, attended the two anti-Trump events that drew hundreds. She said most of the people at these protests were wearing masks and socially distancing, a sharp contrast from the photos of the Trump event, where supporters were crammed together without face coverings. She’s among those frustrated the spike of new cases in the community after the event.
“Bemidji has worked very hard to keep the numbers low for many months, and now they’re skyrocketing,” Thayer said. “We had the (Trump) superspreader event, and we ran into trouble, and you’re seeing that across the country.”
Defying health orders
Local public health officials in several counties tracked cases back to Trump’s rallies and, in one case, to affiliated counter-protests that his presence drew.
The Minnesota county that’s home to Bemidji saw a 35% increase in coronavirus cases in the two weeks after Trump’s rally – from 365 to 499. State health officials said 20 people who tested positive for COVID-19 attended the Sept. 17 event. Sixteen of them attended the rally, and four attended a protest outside.
Minnesota also traced three cases to a Trump rally in Duluth on Sept. 30, just days before Trump and other White House officials tested positive for the coronavirus.
Health officials additionally tracked cases back to campaign events held by other candidates, including one positive case to a Joe Biden rally in Duluth on Sept. 18, three to a speech by Mike Pence in Minneapolis on Sept. 24 and one to an Eric Trump rally on Oct. 1.
The gatherings have irked local and state officials.
In a document obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, just a week before the president’s Oct. 17 rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, the White House coronavirus task force concluded Wisconsin was in the red zone for test positivity. They warned of extreme concern for continued increases in community transmission.
Among its mitigation recommendations? A warning to avoid crowds.
Ahead of an Oct. 14 rally, Iowa’s top public health official, Lina Tucker Reinders, sent an email to the Des Moines Register saying they could be looking at “another super-spreader event.”
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper asked elected leaders and candidates “to lead by example on the campaign trail this fall by holding events with face coverings and social distancing to protect North Carolinians when visiting.
Even though activities exercising First Amendment rights are exempt from the requirements of Cooper’s executive orders about large events, “large gatherings increase the risk of spreading COVID-19,” said Amy Adams Ellis, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Rallies in at least three states – Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Nevada – defied orders limiting the number of people at an event.
The city of Henderson, Nevada, issued a $3,000 fine to Xtreme Manufacturing for hosting a Trump event that violated its 50-person limit on public gatherings. Some 5,600 guests attended the Sept. 13 indoor rally.
In northern Nevada, local news outlets reported one of the president’s rallies was moved in early September because Reno airport authorities were concerned about the size of the crowd.
The campaign includes a disclaimer on rally ticket requests stating that guests “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”
Trump versus Biden
While Trump continues his campaign tour, door-knocking and fundraisers, Biden has mostly suspended many traditional activities.
Biden’s camp has been more forthright about infections within his inner circle. The campaign announced in mid-October that two individuals tested positive for COVID-19, a non-staff flight crew member and the communications director for Sen. Kamala Harris. The campaign cancelled Harris’s scheduled travel through Oct. 18 and was upfront about her last negative test.
Democrats believe Trump has responded to the pandemic poorly, while many of his supporters feel the virus is not a serious threat and that the nation needs to move on to rekindle the economy.
“It is all about modeling and messaging,” said Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the Morsani College of Medicine and associate vice president of University of Southern Florida health. “The public is deeply divided.”
Following Trump’s COVID-19 infection, 57% or registered voters say they are very or somewhat confident in Biden to handle the public health impact of the coronavirus, while 40% express that level of confidence in Trump, according to the Pew Research Center. Biden held a narrower lead on his support over the outbreak in June.
Wolfson said Trump’s behavior with his rallies and handling of the White House outbreak was “ostensibly designed to demonstrate machismo in the face of a pack of rabid dogs,” while creating “the same delusion for a public that can never enjoy the expensive and exclusive protections and care available to the president.
The CDC has consistently cited the dangers of group events such as weddings, funerals and rallies because of how easily they can spread the virus.
At every turn, Trump has defied these warnings. The Rose Garden event in particular was a continuation of the administration’s strategy since mid-April, said Kathleen Sebelius, who served as the secretary of Health and Human Services for six years under the Obama administration.
On April 17, a day after the CDC issued guidelines to tamp down the virus and reopen the economy, Sebelius said the president chose to move in a very different direction, tweeting that states should be “liberated.”
“From that day on, if you’re a fan of the president, don’t wear a mask, drink bleach, take hydroxychloroquine or do whatever has been seen kind of as a badge of honor,” she said. “It’s reckless, it’s immoral and it’s unacceptable.”