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South Dakota COVID-19 deaths rise dangerously fast


South Dakota has topped the list for increase in new deaths from COVID-19 per capita in the United States. No changes are proposed to statewide efforts to curtain the virus. Hospitalization projections are grim and infection rates remain high. Meanwhile mask-wearing is cast as a matter of personal choice not public health.

Highest Increase in Death Rate

While North Dakota still has the highest death rate per capita as of October 27, 61 per 100,000, South Dakota’s numbers are rising at a faster rate. To date South Dakota has 42 deaths per 100,000. North Dakota has a total number of 466 deaths and South Dakota has 375.

In the last fourteen days the rate of COVID-19 deaths reported per day has increased by 30%. The rate of new cases reported per day in South Dakota has increased by 36%, according to the New York Times data which is drawn from data released by the South Dakota Department of Health.

Statewide Efforts

In South Dakota there is still no statewide mask mandate in place and official communications only encourage hand-washing as a defense against COVID-19 which is a vapor-borne illness. In official communications from the governor’s office mask wearing is recommended as a matter of personal choice only and the suggestion to wear one is often paired with conflicting information about its efficacy when global consensus is that masks significantly slow the spread of the disease.

Governor Kristi Noem has come under fire for the use of coronavirus relief funds for tourism and not for other forms of relief. Throughout the first wave of the virus in the late Spring Noem touted the results of South Dakota’s efforts to “flatten the curve” which resulted in a manageable load on hospitals.

Hospitalization Projections

As of today, it is projected that 94% of South Dakota’s ICU beds will be needed for COVID-19 patients at the current rate of infection. South Dakota has about 150 ICU beds. CovidActNow.org estimates 26% are currently in use by COVID-19 patients and that all IUCs should double capacity in order to handle incoming COVID-19 patients.

“Even with surge capacity and decompression factored in, these ICUs are likely highly utilized and could be overwhelmed quickly,” say authors Max Henderson, Eric Carlson, Igor Kofman, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Anna Blech. Little room will be available for other types of emergent needs.

On Cheyenne River hospital capacity is 8 beds and is at 100% capacity as of October 27. Any additional patients will need to move into makeshift wards. Currently there are 10 COVID-19 patients, four at IHS in Eagle Butte and four referred out to other sites. With cases increasing there is a question as to whether those referral sites will be able to absorb Native cases. CRST has 452 cases, 347 recoveries, 101 active infections and four deaths.

Infection Rate

On average, each South Dakotan is infecting 1.13-1.16 new people with the coronavirus.

It’s important to note that the rate of death lags behind the rates of infection from several weeks. As this paper reported in July, several events throughout the summer, not the least of which was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, had the potential to increase the speed and breadth of the infection throughout the state and the middle part of the country.

In an op-ed released to the Rapid City Journal on October 21, Noem defended the hands-off approach of South Dakota stating, “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.”

After aggressive action, the current infection rates in New York is 1.01 and Jew Jersey 1.41.

Personal Freedom Versus Public Health

In some locales the wearing of a mask has been attached to the exercise of personal freedom. This is the official position of both the Trump and Noem administrations. In the October 21 op-ed Noem said, “I’m also asking that we all show respect and understanding to those who make choices we may not agree with.”

In contrast, Cheyenne River has a mask mandate in place and official policy is that wearing a mask is the most responsible thing someone can do.

While Noem sees mask-wearing as a matter of opinion, other governors disagree. Governors across the country are struggling to balance public health with economic stability.

In the October 21 press release Noem said, “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.”

In contrast earlier this month Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer said, “We know that masks work. It’s on all of us to do our part and to have some personal responsibility keeping ourselves, our families and our economy going.”

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