On Blaming Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood for COVID in Colorado

It’s not that COVID-19 doesn’t remain a continuing concern. It’s not that people aren’t still getting sick and dying, and that in certain areas the Delta variant has become a serious situation. It’s not that as the economy continues to open, everyone shouldn’t continue to remain vigilant and aware of the issues and concerns not just affecting themselves, but their communities when it comes to COVID-19.

But some of the viral coverage stemming from a country festival in Colorado has gone beyond the pale with the incredible, hyperbolic fear-mongering, while blame is being levied against country performers specifically who had no involvement in authorizing or clearing the event as safe.

From June 24th to 26th, the outdoor Country Jam music festival took place in Mesa County, Colorado, near Grand Junction. With headliners Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood, and Toby Keith, and an undercard that included Ashley McBryde, Tanya Tucker, and Parker McCollum, the festival sold some 24,000 tickets, and drew large crowds over its three days.

Afterwards, a barrage of media reports mostly pulling from the same same set of sensationalized presuppositions claimed that the event was responsible for a new COVID-19 “outbreak” amid already rising numbers in the Mesa county region of Colorado.

Festival with Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood sparks COVID outbreak” was one of the many viral stories that stemmed from the festival, published by The Sacramento Bee and then distributed to other outlets. The Daily Beast called the Festival “The Perfect Storm.” Local NPR affiliate KHN published a deep-dive think piece into the matter, which was later picked up by NPR proper titled, With Delta Variant Surging In Colorado, A Country Music Festival Goes On.

This is just a small sample size of the scores of local, regional, and national stories stemming from the declaration of a COIVD-19 “outbreak,” similar to how we saw stories materialize during the height of the pandemic whenever public gatherings took place, and large outbreaks of cases occurred after a specific event with dozens or hundreds falling ill.

But some important context is needed in regards to the significance of this specific “outbreak.” Shortly after the festival on July 2nd, five cases out of the 24,000+ attendees were directly or indirectly linked to the festival. By July 8th, that number had risen to 4 staff members from the festival, and 13 attendees for a total of 17 COVID-19 cases that in any way could be linked to the fest.

There has been no reports of anyone being hospitalized or dying after potentially contracting COVID at the Country Jam festival according to Colorado state authorities. It’s also important to note that there is no guarantee that the individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 after the outdoor festival contracted the virus at the festival specifically.

So taking the number of attendees—which was greater than 24,000—and balancing it between the highest number of potential infections stemming from the festival of 17, it constitutes an infection rate of 0.07% for attendees of the Country Jame festival.

So why was an “outbreak” declared when less than 20 people and 0.1% of the attendees potentially came down with the virus after attending? It’s simply due to a procedural decision by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to enter the event into their public database of “outbreaks” in the state, not because the rate of infection resulting from the festival was in any way significant or alarming.

UPDATE: On Wednesday (7-14), the Colorado Department of Public Health updated their numbers on the Country Jam outbreak to include 23 people, with still no hospitalizations or fatalities.

Multiple media outlets seized on the declaration as an opportunity, while few read beyond the headline to the raw data set, and soon Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood, and country music were being blamed for a significant outbreak of COVID-19 in Colorado.

The implications for this mischaracterization are serious. Such widespread negative media coverage can and will have a chilling effect on promoters, performers, local health and elected officials, and could directly result in the postponing, canceling, or refusing to approve live outdoor events that the CDC has specifically declared safe, and most health experts believe pose little or no risk for major COVID-19 spread.

As the story of the Country Jam COVID-19 “outbreak” went viral, it was announced that Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks Music Festival also in Colorado had been canceled due to Chaffee County, Colorado refusing to lift capacity restrictions imposed during the height of the pandemic. The festival was supposed to occur the first weekend in September. The economic impact on not just the performers, but the personnel, vendors, and the local economy will be significant, while people who’ve been cooped up over the last year do not get the opportunity to enjoy a safe, outdoor event.

Meanwhile three days prior, Colorado Governor Jared Polis declared an end to the state’s COVID-19 health emergency, discontinuing all state-level restrictions and executive orders, and signed a new “Recovery Executive Order” focused on returning the state to normal.

Across the country, medium and large gatherings both indoors and outdoors are occurring regularly with little or no media outrage. The Country Jam event was not by far the first larger live event since the pandemic. Some indoor sports arenas are back to full capacity. Indoor clubs and theaters that pose a much greater risk for COVID-19 spread are also operating at full capacity. There was a festival in Serbia this weekend that drew 180,000 people, with little worry about COVID-19.

It’s not that even one new case of COVID-19 isn’t alarming. But at this point, everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated if they so choose, and is in a position to assume their own personal risk by attending any event.

Low vaccination rates in Mesa County where the Country Jam festival occurred seemed to be the real concern and motivation behind much of the media coverage of Country Jam, and the fact that country music often makes a good villain when it comes to the media. The declaration of an “outbreak,” big celebrity names, and country music were what was used to draw attention to the media coverage.

And though the characterization was vaccination rates must be low among Country Jam attendees, was also revealed on Monday (7-12) that two of the Country Jam attendees who tested positive had been fully immunized. The event was approved by local health officials. Major country artists such as Luke Combs and Carrie Underwood must rely on local officials to make these judgement calls and can’t be held responsible.

And most importantly, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health who actually declared the “outbreak,” very few got sick, and so far no significant illnesses or deaths from the event has been reported. The negative media coverage surrounding Colorado’s Country Jam festival should not and cannot be allowed to affect future live outdoor events that the CDC and health experts widely consider as safe.

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