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COVID-19 vaccine to be available to South Dakotans 16 and older starting Monday
  • Updated

Starting Monday, the South Dakota Department of Health will begin Phase 2 of COVID-19 vaccination, which qualifies all residents 16 years and older. The total population in that category is 689,981, according to State Epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton.

As vaccine allocations vary each week, it’s unclear how long it will take to vaccinate those people, but the health department said at a Wednesday news conference that they expect vaccine allocations to continue to increase. This week, the state’s allocation was 27,340 doses, and next week’s will be 32,900 doses. Those numbers don’t include the allocations given to federal entities such as Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Services, and the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said should be receiving more vaccinations.

The DOH encouraged those eligible to get vaccinated, as fully vaccinated people are 90% less likely to contract COVID-19. The vaccine also dramatically decreases the chances of serious illness resulting in hospitalization or death.

So far, 43% of the state has received at least one dose, and 28.4% have received a full two-dose series. Adults aged 65 and older are 83.6% vaccinated, compared with the nationwide average of 72.1%.

Clayton shared findings from a recent study confirming the vaccine’s benefits for pregnant and lactating women. The same levels of antibodies are produced in pregnant women, and babies born to vaccinated mothers receive antibodies in the womb.

Despite increasing vaccine allocations and expanding eligibility, South Dakota is now experiencing a 13% increase in COVID cases. Clayton said the state is seeing an average of 198 new cases per day, compared to last week’s 176 per day. There has also been an increase in younger people requiring hospitalization for COVID — hospitalizations have increased 42% for people aged 40-49, but decreased 36% for people over 80.

There have also been several cases of vaccinated people in a nursing home who have been infected with COVID. Clayton said the health department is working with the affected facility to assess the root cause of the spread, but that “breakthrough cases” such as these are not unheard of. Studies have shown the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 95% effective, while the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is around 66% effective.

U.K. variant of COVID-19 detected in Pennington County

The B.1.1.7 variant strain of COVID-19, also known as the U.K. variant, has been detected in Pennington County as well as Brookings, Lyman and Minnehaha counties, the state Department of Health reported Thursday. There are 14 cases of this variant in the state.

In light of the three variant strains that have appeared in the state in the last week or so, the health department pushed continued vigilance for masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene.

Until a majority of the population is fully vaccinated and even after that point people still need to take precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus, Malsam-Rysdon said. She told citizens to “hang in there for a few more months” to avoid unnecessary cases and deaths.

There are various ways to receive a vaccine in the state, and the health department anticipates more pharmacies in the state joining the federal pharmacy program. To find vaccination opportunities near you, visit https://doh.sd.gov/COVID/Vaccine/. For help finding an appointment, call 1-800-997-2880.


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Residents begin returning home as Schroeder Fire grows to 2,100 acres
  • Updated

The Westberry Trails subdivision looks fairly normal driving in, but as residents made their way farther into the hills, an entire hillside is covered in burned grass.

Heidi Bell Gease, a resident of Westberry Trails, said she was taking a shower Monday morning when the power went out. She called dispatch and asked about a fire.

“Within five minutes, a neighbor came over and said they were evacuating,” she said Wednesday. “One of the firefighters came down and said we needed to get out in a few minutes.”

Bell Gease woke up her daughter and brought two of the family’s three cats into a pickup truck and grabbed some pictures and “whatever was close” and left.

“By the time we left, the smoke was so thick we could barely see across the road,” Bell Gease said. “As we drove out, we could see spot fires burning on the ground.”

She said she kept her COVID-19 vaccination appointment but canceled her daughter’s wisdom teeth extraction, then headed to her in-laws' home in Rapid City.

“We spent the past two days waiting around, driving up and checking, seeing what we could see,” Bell Gease said.

Operations section chief Chris Zoller said the Schroeder Fire, which started Monday morning and caused the evacuation of 400-500 residents just a few miles west of Rapid City, said the fire remains at about 47% containment.

He said the fire is also around 2,165 acres. Helene Duhamel, public information officer for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department, said a residence on Blue Sky Trail is the only confirmed home that was destroyed by the fire.

Zoller said crews are keeping vigilant with strong winds expected from the south-southwest on Thursday. Smoke could affect homes north and northeast of the fire.

He said the fire is active in the Cleghorn Canyon and Nameless Cave areas. He said crews are buffering the fire around structures to manage the land and keep it from coming up the hill.

Incident commander Jared Hohn with the Rocky Mountain Blue team said Black Hawk helicopters were used Wednesday to drop fire retardant and water in the area. 

He also said firefighters have been working 12-14 hour shifts since it’s early in the fire fighting season. The national standard is 16 hours on and 8 hours off.

Tessa Jaeger, public information officer with the Rapid City Fire Department, said 33 members from the  department helped fight the Schroeder Fire on Monday. Tuesday during the day they had 23 personnel involved and four in the evening. On Wednesday, it was 19.

She said they worked regular 24-hour shifts Monday and switched to 12-hour day and night shifts on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We also had all our stations and apparatus fully staffed ready to respond to our daily calls,” Jaeger said. “We were paged shortly after those who first arrived and we responded.”

Residents in Pinedale Heights, Westberry Trails, Red Dale Drive, National Guard Way and Cinnamon Ridge were allowed to return home beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Law enforcement will remain posted in those areas and only allow residents into the neighborhoods, according to the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. Homeowners are asked to stay on their property and not wander the neighborhood or wooded areas. Smoke, smoking stumps and small active fires are to be expected.

Zoller said residents may see smoke in their neighborhoods for a while.

Joe Reiter, disaster program manager with the Red Cross, said the South Canyon Baptist Church temporary evacuation center has helped about 60 families since Monday. The center has boxed lunches, coffee, donuts and fruit for those who have been evacuated.

Volunteers said people have mostly come in to ask for information and to charge their phones.


State-and-regional
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Regents raise tuition by 1.1%, increasing students' average annual costs to $9,256
  • Updated

Students at South Dakota public universities will pay 1.1%, or $104.98, more in tuition and fees for the next academic year after the Board of Regents announced an increase Tuesday. The new rates take effect this summer, at the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year.

The average tuition and fees for an in-state undergraduate student enrolled in 30 credit hours will be $9,358.99. That's $311.96 per credit hour. Previously, that average was $9,256, or $308.50 per credit hour, according to a Regents fact sheet for fiscal year 2021. In 2020 there were no tuition increases, but in 2019 it was increased by 3.4%, in 2018 by 3% and in 2017 by 2.9%.

Various fixed costs, such as the 2.4% salary increase for higher education employees approved by the state legislature this year, impact student tuition and fees. According to a news release from the Board of Regents, the state covers less than half of public university employees’ salary and benefit packages, so tuition, fees, and student charges are raised to cover the remainder.

In fiscal year '21, South Dakota’s average tuition and fees were one of the highest in the region behind Iowa and Minnesota, whose tuition and fees came to $9,286 and $10,555 per 30 credit hours, respectively. In Wyoming, tuition and fees cost $5,792, in Nebraska, $8,218, and in North Dakota, $8,775.

“When the Legislature approves a base fund increase for employee salaries, tuition at the regental system must also increase to compensate for a portion of Board of Regents’ employees not funded with state dollars,” Regents Executive Director and CEO Brian Maher said in a news release.

“Affordability for students and their families is a major consideration for us,” Maher said. “Setting tuition and fees must be done with a mind to balancing student affordability against the real costs of providing education. A minimal 1% adjustment is consistent with those goals.”

The six four-year public universities in South Dakota are: Black Hills State University, Dakota State University, Northern State University, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota.


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WWII veteran receives special honors, museum exhibit for his 101st birthday

A decorated World War II veteran who served in some of the war's most difficult moments had a special 101st birthday Wednesday, when a new exhibit about his military service was unveiled at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City.

Maurice “Morry” Crow was born March 31, 1920, in Washington state. During the late 1930s, he was a mechanic and technician for the Boeing Company.

Then, the world changed forever on Dec. 7, 1941. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Crow's life changed, too.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces to serve his country. In a 2019 interview with the Journal, Crow said his motivation to serve was simple. "Patriotism," he said.

In 1943, Crow was assigned as a B-17 flight engineer and top gunner with the 332nd Bombardment Squadron, 94th Bomb Group stationed at Royal Air Force Bury Saint Edmunds in the United Kingdom. There, he completed 30 missions in the European Theater between October 1943 and April 1944.

Flying during the period of extraordinarily high losses, Crow had only a 34% chance of completing his missions. Yet, in spite of being wounded in combat and facing extraordinary odds against the Nazi-German Luftwaffe, Crow not only survived, he was credited with an aerial victory against an attacking fighter.

Grace Pritchett Journal staff 

Veteran Maurice "Morry" Crow, a World War II B-17 gunner, waits to speak in front of the exhibit dedicated to his service Wednesday at the South Dakota Air & Space Museum in Box Elder.

“I’m very fortunate to be alive today,” he said.

Crow was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Presidential Unit Citation, a Purple Heart and received three Oak Leaf Clusters for his service. He returned to Rapid City Army Air Base, now Ellsworth Air Force Base, in 1944 and never left.

Courtesy photo 

Morry Crow receives the Oak Leaf Cluster from Col. R. Baez Jr., commanding officer of the Rapid City Army Air Base, now Ellsworth Air Force Base, on Sept. 29, 1944.

Crow was a flight engineer instructor for the B-17 bomber at Rapid City until his discharge in October 1945. He married the love of his life, Lucy Lang, and decided to remain in the Black Hills.

"It just felt like home," Crow told the Journal on Wednesday.

He was a successful businessman, owning Crow Construction, and a rancher. His wife, Lucy, died in 2005.

To honor Crow's service and to celebrate his 101st birthday, the South Dakota Air and Space Museum held a special celebration and unveiling of an exhibit about Crow's service.

The Distinguished Flying Cross Society presented Crow as the Society’s latest lifetime inductee and gave him a challenge coin as well. The Distinguished Flying Cross medal is awarded for extraordinary valor in aerial flight and is one of the highest decorations for military service in the United States.

The new exhibit is designed to honor Crow’s specific service as well as Ellsworth Air Force Base’s rich heritage in training B-17 crews for WWII service. The exhibit features commissioned artwork by South Dakota aviation artist John Mollison of Crow’s historic B-17, named “STUD DUCK,” as well as a video presentation featuring Crow’s description of his wartime service.

Courtesy John Mollison 

South Dakota aviation artist John Mollison was commissioned to create the artwork of Crow's historic B-17, the "Stud Duck." The art hangs above the exhibit about Crow's military service at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City.

Museum Foundation President Robert “Von” Liebman said it was a great moment for Crow and the community.

“Our military heritage is so important. What a great opportunity for Ellsworth AFB, with our civilian neighbors, to spotlight the important contributions of individual airmen to our country,” Liebman said.

“Morry represents the essence of the DFC recipient and the selflessness of his generation, willing to give up his life for others. Our nation is built upon the service of strong individuals like Morry,” said Woody Gilliland, of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society.

Veterans Honor Banner Project chairman Bill Casper presented Crow with a proclamation from Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, naming Wednesday as "Morry Crow Day" in the city. Casper also presented Crow with several gifts and more than 100 birthday cards that came from all 50 states and some foreign countries.

After the ceremony, Crow told the Journal he was overwhelmed with the exhibit and the celebration. He said his memories from serving in WWII are always on his mind, even at 101 years old.

"All of them (the memories), there are really no choice ones (that stick out). I live it all the time, and sometimes I can't sleep right," Crow said. "I live it and I have lots of time on my hands. I kind of go up through it (the memories). It's like a movie picture, the same way.

"I've learned from my combat experiences and lived my life as well as I could."


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