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COVID-19 surging back as Omicron takes hold in South Dakota: Local and regional efforts thwarted by politics


As the COVID-19 Omicron variant takes hold in South Dakota this week, case numbers are surging to similar levels as when the pandemic began. Vaccination and boosters are key to slowing the spread as hospitals and emergency rooms across the nation and in South Dakota are under stress from the increased case count and the duration of the pandemic.

In South Dakota and the region, masking and other efforts to slow infection rates have become a matter of politics, thwarting public health efforts. In contrast to state governments across the region, tribal governments generally do not see masking, vaccines, and other measures as limitations of personal freedoms, but as tools to keep families and communities safe.

Rising case count

Nationally, NPR reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new figures late Monday showing that the Omicron variant now accounts for 73.2% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. That’s a sixfold increase from the previous week when the CDC estimated 12.6% of cases were caused by Omicron.

Officials throughout the state are urging people to get vaccinated, boostered, and wear masks in crowded, indoor places. Locally, Cheyenne River is at Level 3 of the COVID response plan and masks are required.

According to Dakota News Now, nearly all patients in the ICU and on ventilators in Sioux Falls are unvaccinated. They are also noticing a trend of younger hospitalized patients. A year ago, the average COVID-19 ICU patient was around 70 years old. Now, the average age of patients is in the 50s.

Case numbers for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Reservation have increased and are following nationwide trends. Tribes and the federal Indian Health Service have reporting spikes since the holidays, and predict the spikes are due to both the Delta and Omicron variants. 

Noem continues stand against vaccines and masks

Just this week, Gov. Noem publicly promised to see President Biden in court as South Dakota joined a lawsuit with the states of Missouri, Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Wyoming stating that the Biden Administration’s COVID vaccine mandate for federal contractors is illegal. You can find the court filing at governor.sd.gov/doc/8thCircuitVaccineMandateFiling.pdf.

South Dakota continues to have no mask mandate in place despite numbers soaring. Gov. Noem has continuously refused to protect the health of the citizens of her state.  She has not held any COVID-19 press conferences to update the public on this ongoing public health and safety concern since June 16, 2021.

Vaccination key with hospitals under stress

“No vaccine has been more scrutinized in modern history than this vaccination,” Sioux Falls City Health Director Dr. Charles Chima said. “So, we can assure you, based on the data that has been reviewed, the billions of people that have taken this vaccine all over the world, the hundreds of millions in the US, and the hundreds of thousands that have taken this vaccine in the state of South Dakota, that these vaccines are safe and effective.”

Dakota News Now reached out to Governor Kristi Noem’s office for her reaction to the rising COVID-19 numbers. Gov. Noem’s Communications Director Ian Fury said, “Governor Noem is constantly aware of the situation regarding COVID-19 in the state and receives frequent updates from our Department of Health and our hospital systems. She is grateful that we remain well within our hospital capacity statewide. She will continue trusting the people of South Dakota to exercise their personal responsibility to protect the health of themselves and their loved ones.”

Avera is deferring non-urgent medical procedures until the spring. While Sanford has not canceled medical procedures, they report the situation is changing day-to-day.

Politics in local efforts

Chairman Harold Frazier posted on his Facebook page on January 2 that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe will continue to require quarantine for 10 days, despite the CDC decreasing quarantine guidelines to 5 days. 

A message relayed to Chairman Frazier and read on the January 6 KIPI broadcast posted on the Chairman’s Facebook page urged the Chairman to have separate guidelines for the tribe and not solely rely on the government for guidance. 

Another person urged the Chairman to consider lockdown or the closing of tribal offices due to the increased spread of the virus. The Chairman said they are considering it and also considering working from home again. 

A third caller made an inquiry about the closing of the tribal schools. Chairman Frazier stated they tried to update the levels and make closures, but said that the movements have not had any traction.

It seems politics have made it challenging to advocate for the tribal recommendations and thwarted follow-through of the measures set out in the Tribe’s COVID-19 Response Plan. According to the numbers and the response plans posted on the Tribe’s COVID-19 website, the tribe should be at Level 4 responses at this time. 

Concerns about aid for food when quarantining an entire family for 10 days have also been at the forefront of conversations. The tribe has been delivering food to those in need and in quarantine when they are aware of needs. 

Vigilant tribal efforts

According to a USA Today report from January 1, 2022, “Native American tribes have been especially vigilant in encouraging COVID-19 vaccines and enacting stringent safety protocols.” 

 USA Today also reported, “Tribal leaders said high vaccination rates, mask mandates and social distancing rules helped limit the Delta variant and put them in a better position to deal with this latest COVID-19 variant, but new protective measures also are being pursued.”

Dr. Laura Hammitt, Director of Infectious Disease Programs at the Center for American Indian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, “High vaccination rates and prevention efforts have kept COVID-19 from causing even greater harm to Native American communities.”

According to tribal leaders, the North American Indigenous communities have been careful and diligent in their own communities, but they cannot control conditions in surrounding communities where members work, attend school and live. This holds true here in Eagle Butte and on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. 

Navajo Nation an exemplar

Throughout the pandemic, the world has closely followed the COVID-19 statistics for the Navajo Nation (Diné) as the largest reservation in the United States.

As of January 6th, The Navajo Nation reported 294 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday, but no deaths for the second time in the past three days. Within two days of Omicron hitting the Navajo Reservation, there was a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez shared that a high tribal vaccination rate, along with consistent protocols related to masking, social distancing, and indoor crowd limits has put the community in a better position to deal with COVID-19 than in the early days of the pandemic.

However, as many members live, attend school and work off of the reservation, it is not easy to control the COVID-19 variables when members are in nearby communities. “It’s really difficult when other jurisdictions don’t mandate masks or politicize wearing masks or getting their shots,” he said.

Seventy-two percent of the Navajo Nation have received two shots and 85% of elders over 65 are fully vaccinated. On Cheyenne River, only 42.24% of the Nation is fully vaccinated. We found no statistics broken down by age, so the percentage of fully vaccinated elders is unknown at this time.

The Navajo/Diné reservation covers 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

In comparison, the Cheyenne River Reservation sits on 4,266.987 square miles in the two counties (Dewey and Ziebach) here in South Dakota, making it the fourth-largest Indian reservation in land area in the United States.

Higher risk in Indian Country

Prevention is particularly important for Indigenous communities, which have been hard-hit by COVID-19. Across Indian Country, masking and vaccines are not about individual freedoms being controlled, it is about keeping our family and communities safe. The Nations have a responsibility to protect their people. 

“This is not our first experience with pandemics and epidemics. We recognize that these kinds of chronic stresses and strains have been present in the lives of Native Americans for generations. For us, it’s a matter of survival,” said Spero M. Manson, Director of the Centers for American Indian & Alaska Native Health at the Colorado School of Public Health. According to, Manson, a history of mistreatment that led to those vulnerabilities has also built resilience.

According to November data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian and Alaska Native people experience higher COVID-19 case, hospitalization, and death rates than any other demographic group. They are more than three times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die than non-Hispanic white people. 

According to medical experts and tribal leaders across the U.S., factors contributing to greater susceptibility include poverty, inadequate nourishment, underlying health conditions, overcrowded housing, and lack of access to medical care and even running water in some rural areas.

Mask mandates near and far

Gov. Kim Reynolds (Iowa – R) lifted the state’s mask mandate on February 7, 2021, issuing a new emergency order that drops rules on face-covering and social distancing in favor of encouraging “reasonable public health measures” to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Reynolds signed legislation on May 20 barring local governments from compelling businesses to require masks. Iowa City mandates masks for people over age two in indoor public places and outdoors when they cannot maintain social distancing. City officials say the order is legal because it is binding on individuals, not businesses. However, local residents say the ordinance cannot be enforced due to the State order. 

Gov. Tim Walz (MN – D) ended the state’s general mask mandate on May 14, 2021. Face-covering is still required in schools and child care settings. The Minnesota Department of Health recommends masking in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor settings.

On January 6, 2022, Minneapolis and St. Paul implemented new municipal mask orders covering most indoor public places. Under the Minneapolis Order, Emergency Regulation No. 2022-01, 

The North Dakota Department of Health recommends residents follow CDC masking guidance. There has been no statewide mandate since January 18, 2021. The last pandemic statement made on Gov. Doug Burgum’s (ND – R) website was from April 21, 2021, when he lifted the North Dakota COVID-19 State of Emergency.

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