Since Mother’s Day, No Known Rodeo-Linked COVID Cases. Dumb Luck?

It’s been 18 days since the Mother’s Day Cottonwood Rodeo, an event that garnered worldwide controversy for attracting and packing in nearly 2000 people, despite a COVID-19 ban against large gatherings.

Cottonwood rodeo image: Screen grab from KRCR news story.

Shasta County has seen six new positive COVID-19 cases since Mother’s Day: May 11, a male in his 50s;  May 14, a male in his 30s; May 16, a male in his 70s; May 22, two cases, a female in her 30s, and another female in her 40s. Finally, yesterday Shasta County had one new positive COVID-19 case, a male in his 70s.

So far, public health officials haven’t identified any of those six cases as being rodeo-related.

While one case is one case too many, this is not quite the virus spike I was expecting. No, I wasn’t wishing for it. But rather, my expectations were based upon common sense. You hike through poison oak, don’t be surprised if you suffer from an itchy outbreak. You hug a child who later turns out to have head lice, don’t be surprised if you get it, too. You drive a car with a broken gas gauge, don’t be surprised if you run out of gas before you’ve reached your destination.

You join nearly 2,000 people inside a crowded arena for a rodeo during a deadly pandemic, don’t be surprised if you end up in a hospital on a ventilator a few weeks later.

Let me just say this up front: I admit to being wrong about my expected flood of positive COVID-19 cases.

You may recall I wrote about the rodeo, and condemned Shasta County Sheriff Magrini for giving the rodeo a green light, especially since Shasta County’s public health professionals had already asked the rodeo organizer to cancel the event. The rodeo organizer ignored that directive, and took the word of the sheriff to carry on.

Not only did Magrini approve the rodeo, but he justified it during a KRCR interview that aired the day before the rodeo was scheduled.

I said that the worst part about the Mother’s Day Cottonwood Rodeo wasn’t the global shaming (though it was kind of embarrassing), but the worst part was that because of the rodeo, our north state could face potentially dire consequences after nearly 2,000 people decided to break the rules and attend one rodeo. Pandemic be damned.

Shasta County Health and Human Services expressed in a press release its displeasure that the rodeo happened, not only putting citizens at risk, but also jeopardizing the county’s ability to re-open businesses.

Since Mother’s Day, with each passing day, I’ve joined thousands of others who’ve had one eye on the calendar and another eye on public health press releases for signs of an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases. I was watching the calendar not just because of the rodeo, but because many north state churches also opened on Mother’s Day, such as the Butte County church where 180 parishioners were exposed to a COVID-positive church member. And apparently, there have been other positive cases tied to that church since then, too.

Here in Redding, on a local television station’s story about the relatively low number of virus cases since the rodeo, some Facebook users mocked the story, and expressed their opinions, outrage and disgust.

“2 weeks ago, 2000 people went to the Cottonwood (CA) Rodeo and we have yet to see a “SURGE” in COVID cases… I’m still waiting.”

“I wouldn’t assume rodeo-goers would have weak DNA anyway.”

“It’s all propaganda people”

“They just can’t seem to admit that it was a perfectly fine event and nothing came of it!!”

“Open my GYM you A-hole”

“Amazing that people should be terrified of a virus that has no symptoms- it’s the what if’s? So don’t drive- you may get in an accident- Don’t breathe- you may catch some other disease- on and on. It’s time to live people. Stop this nonsense!”

“How about this could be representative of the fact that large groups can gather and NOT be terrified to do so?”

“Open the Damn Bars!”

One Cottonwood business owner, who’d also attended the Cottonwood rodeo, took to Facebook to share her thoughts on the subject. She held a sign, which I’ve cropped so you can’t see her face, that said,”I survived the 2020 Cottonwood Mother’s Day Rodeo.” I’ve also removed the name of her business from the post, too. (I don’t know her, and we’ve not spoken.) And while Facebook removed her original post, and even removed her business Facebook page for a while, presumably because that was the site of her post, her post has been shared and re-shared numerous times, which is how I found it. (Facebook has since restored her business page, but so far, Facebook continues to remove her original post.)

Source Facebook.

Here’s her original post, which has been removed by Facebook:

The original Facebook message was removed by Facebook, but screen shots of the post have been widely shared. Source: Facebook

I understand the anger, vindication and self-righteousness felt by this woman, and others who attended the rodeo or who approved of it

But I can’t shake the chill as I read that Cottonwood resident’s open account of thousands gathered side by side, no masks, no social distancing, hugs, handshakes, passing of a whiskey bottle, almost as if they were gleefully daring the virus to be real.

You may recall that after the rodeo, Shasta County public health recommended that everyone who attended the Mother’s Day Cottonwood Rodeo be tested for COVID-19. I’m guessing that suggestion was about as welcome as the directive to prevent the rodeo in the first place.  I hope I’m wrong (again), but I’m betting that very few rodeo folks were tested. Many think, as the Facebook poster said above, that all this virus talk is propaganda.

I wondered if public health knew how many people who’d attended the rodeo had been tested. Kerri Schuette, spokeswoman for Shasta County HHSA, said there’s no way of knowing, since people are not asked about their whereabouts when they’re tested. (However, if someone tests positive, then contact tracing would be implemented after the diagnosis to identity where the infected person had been, and who’d been exposed.)

Donnell Ewert, director of HHSA, is also an epidemiologist. He addressed the rodeo topic during Wednesday’s HHSA media briefing when I asked what could be said to those to took the after-rodeo COVID numbers as an assumption that large gatherings were harmless.

What could possibly convince people who believe the rodeo was a “perfectly fine event and nothing came of it”?

Ewert acknowledged that it’s been a few weeks since the rodeo, and said everyone’s happy that the county is not seeing a large cluster of positive COVID cases associated with the rodeo.

Here’s how Ewert answered the question regarding what to say to those who view the rodeo as evidence that large gatherings are safe:

“I think that it’s important to understand that number one, there may not have been anyone with the virus at the rodeo, so if there was no one actually infected with the virus, and shedding it, then even though there were a lot of people together no one would get infected.

Had there been someone at the rodeo with the virus — and there may have been — that person still may have infected people who were asymptomatic, or who have mild disease that have not been detected or reported to us. So, we’ll never be able to say there were no cases. We just know that we haven’t identified any.

In addition, some of those asymptomatic or mild cases who have not come to our attention could infect other people. And so family members, or people who work with them, or others in the community, could become infected, and they may not know they were infected by someone at the rodeo.

So we’ll never know if any cases did arise from the rodeo. I guess my message is, again, that large gatherings like that at this time are risky. They’re risky to individuals and the whole community, and they should not be happening.

If we were fortunate, and there was no one with the virus at the rodeo, then that’s exactly what it is; we were fortunate.

But we may still see cases. And I should also add there may have been people there from other counties, and some of the cases that are being found in other north state counties may also be related to the rodeo, whether that’s identified or not.”

I agree with everything Ewert said. The trick will be convincing the virus-deniers.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the last four people who tested positive for COIVD-19 in Shasta County were people who had NO symptoms, meaning, they were tested even though they didn’t feel sick. As Ewert said, we’ll never know how many Shasta County COVID-19 cases end up being rodeo-related. That’s especially true if those who attended the rodeo refuse to be tested.

This is a good time to repeat the public health department’s plea for everyone to get tested, not just people who feel ill. Remember in the beginning of this pandemic, when one of the biggest concerns and most frequent question was about the lack of testing? That’s no longer an issue here in Shasta County, where we have a facility at Shasta College fully staffed and streamlined to make the entire process quick and easy. Best of all, it’s free.

Let me ask you this: Why not get tested? What do you have to lose? Aren’t you curious? I was, which is why I got tested. (And my results were negative.) I did it. So can you. Then report back and tell me how it went.

If you have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for direction, or call Shasta County Public Health at (530) 225-5591. However, if you are like me, and lack symptoms, go to https://lhi.care/covidtesting to register for an appointment. (And remember to bring your patient identification number with you.)

Meanwhile, as of yesterday, 100,000 Americans and counting have lost their lives to COVID-19.

One hundred thousand. That’s more than if every Redding man, woman and child dropped dead within the last four months. That doesn’t sound very lamb-like to me. And the lion? It’s roaming unseen, preying silently upon people of every age. This lion is no respecter of whiskey, rodeos, churches, bars, nail salons, gyms, gutless leaders or COVID-deniers. Most of all, it’s no respecter of high fives to little kids, and sarcastic jokes about “risking lives” to attend a Mother’s Day rodeo.

Oh Shasta County, pray that our lucky streak continues, and that the virus doesn’t get the last laugh.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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