SIOUX FALLS | South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Wednesday doubled-down on her hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic by pointing to the state's low hospitalization numbers and cast doubt on key recommendations from public health officials like wearing a mask.
The Republican governor's reluctance to endorse mask-wearing and the state's relatively low amount of testing have some health experts in the state worrying the early success in managing the pandemic could yet be undone.
Noem's refusal to issue statewide lockdown orders has earned praise from conservative pundits, with Newsmax magazine recently dubbing her the "Iron Lady of the Prairie." They point to the state's relatively low COVID-19 numbers as evidence her approach is working. But a closer look shows that South Dakota is currently testing residents less frequently than nearly any other state, leading doctors to worry the state won't be able to catch clusters of infections before they get out of control.
Noem has said repeatedly that "science, facts and data" lead her decisions but that appears to come down to a single metric for determining the state's success in fighting the coronavirus: hospitalizations.
"We weren't going to focus on the amount of positive cases versus negative cases, we were just going to focus on how many people we had in the hospital because we knew that this virus would come. We also know that we can't stop it," she said in a conference call with Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think-tank based in Minnesota.
So far, the number of hospitalizations has remained far from overwhelming the state's hospitals. 54 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Department of Health.
But that's just one piece of the puzzle, said Dr. Jawad Nazir, an infectious disease expert and clinical professor at the University of South Dakota medical school.
"If we don't bring testing up, we are probably contributing to the spread of infection," he said. "If we don't identify sources of spread in our community, then we will end up with compromised hospitals and health care workers."
Over the last seven days, the state has conducted the second-lowest number of tests per person in the country, beating only Hawaii, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
South Dakota's testing has lagged behind most of its neighbors throughout the pandemic, with 9.7% of the population receiving a test. Of the six states that share a border with South Dakota, only Wyoming has tested a lower percentage of its population.
Meanwhile, North Dakota has held regular mass testing events, free to anyone who shows up. In South Dakota, the state's largest health care providers still vet whether people need a test, usually limiting them to people with symptoms
Dr. David Basel, vice president of Clinical Quality at Avera Medical, said health care providers are looking to expand testing but need to make sure they don't run out of supplies.
"Today, we would still describe our supply chain as adequate but still fragile," he said.
Aggressive testing is crucial to containing the virus, Nazir said. While recent infections have come from people in their 20s and 30s, he worried they could spread it to people at higher risk to the virus.
He said mixed messaging on wearing masks is not helpful, either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks while in public or around people outside their household.
Noem said she refers people to that guidance but went on to call the science on masks "very mixed."
"There's not good science using them or not using them," she said.
An analysis published in the leading medical journal The Lancet found, however, that masks and social distancing can help control the coronavirus, though hand washing and other measures are still needed.
Noem made another claim that defies recommendations from many public health experts, saying that "asymptomatic people very rarely spread the virus."
An official from the World Health Organization said last month that it appears to be rare asymptomatic people transmit the virus. But many other scientists have said there's plenty of evidence that people can spread the disease before suffering symptoms.
Noem appears determined to avoid government lockdown orders or other mandates, often emphasizing the need for businesses to continue operating.
"If you come into a crisis, and you have a leader use more authority than what they really are granted or allowed to, that's how you lose this country," she said.
After learning two staff members and one child had tested positive for COVID-19, Leap 2 Learn Educational Childcare decided to close for two weeks so families and staff can self-quarantine.
Amy Ray, owner of the day care at 625 N. Creek Drive in Rapid City, said she made the decision to close the facility after learning one staff member tested positive for coronavirus.
Ray contacted all the families and employees related to the day care center and asked them to stay at home for 14 days to monitor for symptoms.
Ray said the Department of Health recommended cleaning the facilities but didn't recommend the day care close or stay open. Ray also said the Department of Social Services didn’t have any specific suggestions either.
Child care centers in other states have dealt with the same problem and closed for two weeks, Ray said, so she made the decision to close until July 20.
Ray said it would be difficult for the day care to remain open as 37 staff members work there but only seven could work because the rest of the staff had close contact with those who tested positive.
Seven staff members wouldn’t be enough to care for the 108 children who have been going to day care there since May, Ray said. She estimates 40 of those children had close contact with the staff and child who tested positive.
Ray said the families who use the day care center will get two weeks tuition paid back, and all employees will be paid for the entire two weeks.
“We’re just trying to take care of everybody,” she said.
Ray said she suggested that families not to seek other child care options during their self-quarantine as that might contribute to the spread of COVID-19. She said staff members who weren’t exposed to COVID-19 offered to take care of some of the children, but no families took them up on the offer.
The bridge on Nemo Road that had a partial collapse last week may be closed until the end of September.
Pennington County Highway Superintendent Joseph Miller told county commissioners on Tuesday that materials for the bridge may not be ready until the end of the month, and the contractor may not be able to get out there until early August.
The bridge is 0.2 miles south of the Meade County Line near the Pine Road intersection. Miller said a semi-truck hauling iron ore from Nemo to Twin Peaks crossed the bridge as it collapsed and blew out its axles and tires.
“We assume it wasn’t overweight,” he said.
Miller said the county will need eight bridge decks and three 50-footers and five 30-foot spans. He estimated the cost at $100,000 to $150,000.
He said the contractor is currently working on other projects for the county and it would likely take one to 1.5 months to complete the project.
Miller said last week that the bridge was not on the list of 21 structurally deficient bridges within the county.
Commissioner Ron Rossknecht asked Miller about an inspection from 2018 that noted some issues with the bridge. Miller said the budget and status of other bridges took priority at the time.
Miller said it won’t be likely the guard rails have to come out since the outside deck of the bridge is in good standing.
There will be a public informational meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Nemo Community Hall to discuss the bridge. The hall is at 12746 Nemo Road in Nemo.
During the meeting, Miller also announced the county received an award from the Federal Aid Bridge Replacement Program for $1,273,299 to help replace three bridges.
According to a press release from the South Dakota Department of Transportation, there were 113 applications for the program, which represented about 11% of the current eligible need. However, the program’s funds will only cover 5% of that need.
Miller said the county will need to match $280,451 in accordance with the program.
“This is a very good thing for Pennington County,” he said.
He said the county would’ve had to pay $1.6 million up front to replace the bridges on its own.
The board also approved lowering the Lower Spring Creek Road speed limit to 40 mph and authorized the department to advertise and receive bids for a new truck.
Commissioners also approved a resolution and agreement for the Local Government COVID Recovery Fund Reimbursement. The resolution and agreement allows the county to be reimbursed for COVID-19 funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.
Commissioner Mark DiSanto said it’s important to note the county will be reimbursed about $7.5 million.
The county also released a press release Tuesday stating county administrative buildings will partially lift its restricted public access with public safety measures in place to conduct business in person as of Monday.
According to the release, the Public Defender’s Office and the Office of the States Attorney will resume business July 27
Business in the Treasurer’s Office will be restricted to one individual per window, and the drop box inside the main entrance of the Administration Building will no longer be used after 5 p.m. Friday.
Mayor Steve Allender said Wednesday the July 3 events for President Donald Trump's visit to Mount Rushmore, protest security and security for a rally at Main Street Square cost the city an estimated $42,000.
At his weekly news conference, Allender said the events cost $20,000 in law enforcement expenses and $24,000 in fire department costs. The mayor said he expects $18,000 to be reimbursable from the state because of ambulance services provided at Mount Rushmore.
Allender also spoke about the protests that have been going on in response to Trump's visit and the Black Lives Matter movement, where protesters have been calling for police reform and better services for the homeless and vulnerable populations.
"It doesn't seem as though anyone in the protest groups are looking for dialogue," Allender said. "You have an open invitation here at City Hall to contact us, to sit down and discuss the issues."
During Monday's City Council meeting, three people who are part of protest groups spoke up about what they see as law enforcement's inappropriate actions and city government not taking appropriate steps to address the concerns.
"We received a scolding from three citizens at last Monday night's council meeting. These three individuals have never made a query at City Hall wanting to talk about these things face to face," Allender said. "They want to come here and scold, and then go back to where they came from — protesting. It's not helpful, and I can't imagine they see it as helpful. If there are issues, we need to be talking about them, not just shouting about them."
Allender said some of the accusations brought up by the protesters are false — specifically about Rapid City police and the use of body cameras, as well as the city's response to taking care of those who are homeless or vulnerable.
The mayor said the protesters were demanding that police officers wear body cameras and that the footage be secured for 90 days. Allender said that is already being done.
"Every single Rapid City police officer, and I believe Pennington County sheriff's deputy, has a body cam attached to their uniform," Allender said. "Body cam footage is secure. A police officer does not have access to it to edit it or delete it. It is kept for a period of time and backed up. It is very secure footage.
"This is just evidence that there are this angst over these issues that no one has bothered to even ask a question about."
Allender said many of these accusations are being made without any follow-up from the accusers.
"I would challenge you to learn more about what the city and its partners have done for Rapid Citians throughout the pandemic. There's a lot more to learn, and I'll just leave it at that," he said.