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Stanford study seeks to quantify infections resulting from Trump rallies

WASHINGTON – A group of economists at Stanford University who created a statistical model estimate there were at least 30,000 coronavirus infections and 700 deaths following 18 campaign rallies President Trump held in June to September.

The figures, which will surely rekindle accusations by Democratic leaders and public health officials that the president is putting voters at risk for political gain, are not based on individual cases directly linked to particular campaign events.

Instead, Stanford researchers, led by Professor B. Douglas Bernheim, chairman of the university’s economics department, conducted a regression analysis. They compared the 18 counties where Mr. Trump held rallies with up to 200 counties with similar demographics and similar trajectories of confirmed Covid-19 cases before the rally date.

The events took place from June 20 to September 12; only the first two – in Tulsa, Okla., and Phoenix – were held indoors. The president has held about three dozen more rallies since the study ended in September.

Based on their models, the researchers concluded that on average, the 18 events produced increases in confirmed cases of more than 250 per 100,000 population. Extrapolating that figure to the 18 rallies, they concluded that the rallies ultimately resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and that the rallies “likely led to over 700 deaths”, although those deaths would not have happened. necessarily produced only among participants.

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The article, published on academic websites and on Twitter by its authors a few days before the presidential election, is likely to be controversial. Public health officials in states and counties where Trump has held rallies said in interviews this week that it was impossible to link particular infections or outbreaks to the rallies for several reasons: the number of cases are increasing overall, gathering participants often travel to other locations, contact tracing is not always complete, and contact tracers do not always know the whereabouts of infected people.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, dismissed the study as “a political model based on flawed assumptions and intended to shame Trump supporters.”

“As the president said, the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” Deere said in a statement on Saturday. “This country must be open armed with best practices and the freedom of choice to limit the spread of Covid-19.”

The study is a “working paper” and has yet to go through peer review, Professor Bernheim said in an interview on Saturday. He said it was common practice for economists to publish their work online before submitting it to an academic journal so that other experts could comment. He said politics was not the motivation.

“The motivation for this document,” he said, “is that there is a raging debate about the trade-off between the economic consequences of restrictions and the health consequences of transmission, and as an economist. , I consider this debate to be both important and appropriate. “

Since the president resumed holding political rallies in June, he has faced fierce criticism of them. Public health officials in Tulsa, the site of the first rally, said a subsequent increase in coronavirus cases was most likely linked to it.

Just over two weeks after the event, Tulsa recorded 206 new confirmed cases of coronavirus in a single day, a record high at the time. Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate, died of Covid-19 after attending the rally, although it is impossible to know if he was infected there.

State and local public health officials across the country have also questioned whether Mr. Trump’s gatherings have become so-called mass market events. With thousands of people gathered nearby, many of whom are not wearing masks, the gatherings provide a fertile environment for the virus to spread.

In Minnesota, for example, state officials traced 16 coronavirus infections and two hospitalizations at a Trump rally on September 18 in the town of Bemidji, Beltrami County. Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent Joseph R. Biden Jr., who wears masks and encourages his supporters to do so, ran his own campaign even that same day in Duluth; this resulted in a coronavirus infection, but no hospitalization.

But Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health, said the full extent of the spread that resulted from these cases was difficult to quantify, as many people who develop Covid-19 are asymptomatic or have symptoms and do not seek treatment, and even those who test positive may not respond to contact tracing requests.

“What we are seeing in Beltrami County are indicators of transmission, and that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Schultz said in an email.

Many Trump supporters have complained that focusing on the risk posed by the president’s rallies ignores the risk posed by other large gatherings, such as the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. But Prof Bernheim said that because rallies are isolated events with a finite beginning and end, they are “more suitable events to study” than protests, which can take place over several days.

Assessing the risk of electoral rallies is “a noisy process,” said Professor Bernheim, and focusing on a single event is misleading. Her article noted that there had been similar and smaller analyzes – including one based on the Tulsa gathering that found no significant effects. But, he says, “measuring the average effect of treatment on multiple events, as in our study, produced more reliable results.”

Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.