It has been nearly eight months since COVID-19 first hit our state. Though there is still much to learn, we are fortunate to have a much better sense of the common enemy we’re fighting today than we did back in March.
Today, we know that hand washing kills the virus. And though anyone can get it, we also know that it’s the elderly and those with certain pre-existing conditions that have the greatest risk of mortality.
In South Dakota, the percentage of cases that require hospitalization increases with age. Older adults (age 60+) make up 20% of the cases but account for 59% of hospitalizations. Alternatively, children and young adults (under age 30) make up 35% of cases but only 8% of hospitalizations.
Similarly, the percentage of cases that result in death also increases with age in South Dakota. Roughly 85% of deaths have occurred in older adults (age 60+). One in eight adults aged 80+ years who tested positive for COVID-19 (many of which also had underlying health conditions) have died. And no one under the age of 23 has died from the virus.
I draw your attention to these data points because facts matter, and South Dakotans should be informed about what is happening in our state.
While we have been working together to combat this virus, many other states have taken a very different approach. Some governors ordered their citizens to shelter in place. Others ordered businesses and churches to close. Some even sent nursing home patients who had the virus back into their facilities.
Many said these steps had to be taken. They insisted that the approach we’ve taken – trusting the people to make the best decisions for themselves and their families – was wrong. The data say otherwise.
New Jersey and New York have the two worst death rates, 183 and 171 per 100,000 respectively, in the nation. Though every death is one too many, South Dakota’s death rate, 37 per 100,000, remains among the lowest in the nation.
As we expected, cases have gone up in South Dakota. Science told us that was going to happen – there is no way to stop the virus. But what’s encouraging is that we’re doing a much better job of identifying cases, getting those individuals isolated, and treating those who need an elevated level of care.
In October, South Dakota’s daily reporting of tests has jumped to more than 5,200 per day. That’s more than double the 2,500 daily tests in September and triple the 1,700 daily tests in August. Identifying cases is a good thing. It lets our medical professionals treat patients; they know what works and what doesn’t work. Earlier treatment means that people aren’t getting as sick, and for those who require hospitalization, they aren’t staying in the hospital as long.
Though we all look forward to a time when COVID-19 is behind us, a one-size-fits-all approach remains elusive. This includes mandatory masking. In many other places – from Los Angeles and Miami to London and Paris – cases have exploded despite the existence of mask mandates and other harsh restrictions.
There are times when masks are appropriate. For example, masks are a smart precaution when caring for a symptomatic person who is coughing or sneezing. Masks are also recommended in hospital settings. Data suggest that N95 masks can be effective when worn appropriately – changed regularly, fitted properly, and not touched. But if you’re alone in a park, or hunting in a field, risk of transmission is negligible, even without a mask.
Oxford’s Dr. Carl Heneghan, also the editor-in-chief of British Medical Journal Evidence-Based Medicine, says: “It would appear that despite two decades of pandemic preparedness, there is considerable uncertainty as to the value of wearing masks.”
Though they’ve flipped-flopped on this issue, even the World Health Organization wrote this summer, “the widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence and there are potential benefits and harms to consider.”
There are many others who question the effectiveness of masks, and South Dakotans should take the time to read this information so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. As I’ve said before, if folks want to wear a mask, they should be free to do so. Similarly, those who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into wearing one. And government should not mandate it. We need to respect each other’s decisions – in South Dakota, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.
Recently, a South Dakota doctor wrote me, thanking me “for treating your fellow citizens of South Dakota like adults...” I tell you this because there are also some South Dakota medical professionals who have written to tell me of their fears about voicing their thoughts on the situation.
One family doctor sent me this message: “I feel like I am unable to have an opinion about masking because I am employed. I think your approach has good science and is being suppressed or ignored by many… I think we are all worried if we disagree openly our license or job could be at risk.”
That’s concerning to me, because in America, everyone is free to have and express an opinion about matters of public importance. Some in our culture today have gotten into the habit of shutting down viewpoints they don’t agree with, sometimes ruining lives and careers. This is a serious mistake, deadly to public dialogue and, more importantly, public trust – especially when situations like the one we’re in are changing almost daily.
From the beginning, my administration has committed itself to following the science, and we will continue to do so. Science tells us that for most people, the risks of COVID-19 are very low. Science also tells us that the normal hygiene measures that we all learned when we were young are very effective.
I’m going to continue to ask South Dakotans to be extra diligent about their personal hygiene and to stay home if they are sick. I’m going to continue to trust South Dakotans to make wise and well-informed decisions for themselves and their families. I’m also asking that we all show respect and understanding to those who make choices we may not agree with. Our trust in the data and in each other has been rewarded. This is a testament to the people of South Dakota – our greatest weapon against this common enemy.