The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may account for 19 percent of US COVID-19 cases in August

Here’s everything you need to know this week.

Labor Day weekend marked the unofficial end of a unique summer of social distancing and mask wearing. As fall approaches, epidemiologists and public health officials warn that even in areas that have flattened their curves, new spikes in coronavirus cases may follow in the chillier months to come. Meanwhile, drug companies are banding together to ensure any vaccine that reaches the market is safe and effective.

Drug companies pledge to vet vaccines for safety and efficacy before they reach public use

The race to create a coronavirus vaccine has been unlike any other. Before the pandemic, it took years or even decades for a new vaccine to make it through clinical trials. Now, immunologists and other researchers around the world are fast-tracking these trials to bring a vaccine to market as fast as possible. But with that speed comes concerns about safety and effectiveness.

President Trump has mentioned on many occasions that a vaccine could be available by election day on November 3rd. However, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser for the coronavirus vaccine development program, dubbed Operation Warp Speed, told NPR last week that “there is a very, very low chance that the trials that are running as we speak could read before the end of October.”

This week, nine drug companies announced a joint pledge that they would not make a vaccine available unless it had been fully vetted for safety and efficacy, according to The New York Times. Three of the companies, Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, are officially working on a vaccine for COVID-19. In the pledge, the companies didn’t say that they wouldn’t seek emergency use authorization for their vaccines—which is the only way a COVID-19 vaccine could make its way to the public by election day—but that they vowed to use the results of large clinical trials to determine if the drugs were safe and effective before bringing them to the FDA for review. You can follow developments on most vaccines here.

A new report suggests the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is now connected to over 250,000 cases of COVID-19

Last month, nearly 500,000 people descended onto a small town in South Dakota for an annual motorcycle rally. During the 10-day event, motorcycle enthusiasts from around the country crowded inside bars and restaurants, many without a mask. Since the rally, public health experts have feared that this event contributed to a number of new cases of COVID-19.

Now, one new paper out this week which tracked anonymous cell phone data from the rally acquired from the data company, SafeGraph, Inc. suggests that over 250,000 new cases of coronavirus that have popped up since the event have been linked back the gathering. According to economist Andrew Friedson, that’s around 19 percent of the total case count between August 2 and September 2.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists have feared that big events, especially at indoor venues, could trigger super-spreader events where one or a few highly infectious people could spread the virus to an exponentially large number of people they interact with. The researchers also note that because the event was so long (it went on for 10 days), involved a large number of people from out-of-state, and had low mask compliance, that these factors could have further increased people’s chances of catching and spreading the virus.

Valved masks and face shields offer far less protection than cloth masks

A multi-layer cloth mask is a proven and effective way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Recently, other versions of face protection have become increasingly popular. Both face shields (plastic barriers that rest on your forehead) and valved masks, which have a one-way vent that lets air out but blocks germs from entering, have both become popular for their comfort and breathability. But a new study out last week in the journal Physics of Fluids shows that face shields worn without a cloth mask underneath as well as valved masks alone both allow large amounts of aerosols to escape when talking and breathing.

Research shows that the coronavirus can be spread via small and large viral droplets expelled when coughing and sneezing but also when talking loudly or in close proximity to others, especially for an extended period of time.

The study’s authors suggest that a cloth mask with at least two layers is the best option for consumers. N95 masks do likely offer the best protection but are often reserved for medical professionals. If you do want to wear a face shield, it can be worn in addition to a cloth mask for even more protection.

New York State’s signs of progress come with a warning and the midwest continues to see increased case counts

New York, home to one of the first and worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country, has had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of below 1 percent for 30 days straight, as of Sunday. That means of all the coronavirus tests the state performs each day, less than one percent of them have come back positive.

However, public health experts warn that case counts could spike again, especially as the economy continues to reopen and schools reopen their doors as well. At the State University of New York at Oneonta, there were 500 reported cases of COVID-19 just two weeks after the college opened. Researchers cite indoor crowded parties as a potential cause for the viral spread.

Around the country, cases are increasing in many parts of the midwest including North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri. You can see how your state and area is fairing here.

Claire Maldarelli
Claire Maldarelli

is the Science Editor at Popular Science. She has a particular interest in brain science, the microbiome, and human physiology. In addition to Popular Science, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Scholastic’s Science World and Super Science magazines, among others. She has a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s in science journalism from New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Contact the author here.