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. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.