South Dakota has become a curious headline during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since late August, the state has seen a surge in infections and deaths from the coronavirus and is now reporting one of the biggest per-capita increases in cases in the country.
And yet, South Dakota is being packaged as a success story in the COVID-19 fight.
Gov. Kristi Noem has been heralded on social media and conservative news outlets as a heroine of sorts for her refusal to lock down the state or embrace other sweeping measures. She won’t even give a nod to wearing face masks, instead casting doubt on the science that supports their use. As she puts it, she has instead chosen “freedom” for our state.
Along the way, she’s also offered up South Dakotans as a test subjects for hydroxychloroquine, the drug President Donald Trump has pushed periodically throughout the pandemic (although it apparently never came into play when he himself wound up with COVID and landed in the hospital last weekend.) And with her political profile ascending nationally, Noem also gave her blessings this summer to Trump’s Mount Rushmore fireworks rally, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and a national rodeo in Sioux Falls at a time when large gatherings across the country have been very problematic.
So, maybe she is a heroine in all this.
Then again, the facts on the ground tell a different tale. On Thursday, South Dakota reported a pandemic-high 14 new deaths tied to COVID-19, this after September clocked in as the state’s deadliest month yet. Thursday also saw more than 500 new infections and continued increases in active cases and hospitalizations. (These numbers came a day after Noem tweeted out about South Dakota, “Less COVID, more hunting!”) Meanwhile, vital issues such as available hospital beds and contact tracing remain open for debate and doubt. All this suggests we’re far from in control of this plague in our rural oasis of freedom.
Honestly, the Gov. Noem we’re seeing now campaigning for Trump in a number of battleground states and lauding like-minded leaders who, she says, “don’t overstep their authority” in dealing with COVID-19 is a slightly different version of the governor who was forced to confront this extraordinary crisis when it hit in March.
Back then, she seemed more hesitant in the face of this medical unknown, which was understandable. When she first announced in March that South Dakota schools would close for a couple weeks, her initial statement left matters unclear, as if she was merely asking schools to consider it. It felt like she was inching up to that precipice. Also, during her media briefings, she emphasized many times that the safety measures being recommended to South Dakotans would probably not be short term because we would be doing this for a while, and that’s been true.
But now, it’s hard to picture the autumn version of Noem casting things in the same terms that the springtime Noem did.
For instance, the autumn Noem has no problem decrying things like lockdowns as ineffective, “draconian measures,” or dismissing medical professionals who recommend such bold steps as an “elite” class of “so-called experts,” which she declared at the Republican National Convention. She continually hits on the theme that she chose freedom over lockdowns, which is technically true. In fact, she shifted most of those decisions to the cities and counties, and some leaders from those entities were frustrated with what they felt was a lack of direction from Pierre.
I also recall how she responded last spring when the Park Jefferson race track in Union County announced it was going to start holding car races with crowds again. While she didn’t put her foot down like, say, Gov. William Janklow might have done in another era, her frustration with Park Jefferson was evident. However, that was the springtime Noem; the autumn Noem would probably be driving the pace car.
What we have today is a state touting its successes in dealing with the pandemic while teachers are worrying about what they will be exposed to in their classrooms and parents are worrying about what their kids may face and/or bring home; the elderly and sick are fretting about circulating in public again; and long-term care facilities are still facing lockdowns while their residents are coping with lonesome isolation. We have medical staff being pushed to the brink in places. Meanwhile, we also have people who don’t believe the virus is real or are unconcerned by it, and they’re behaving accordingly, which may help partially explain the escalating infections. There is no real uniformity in what we’re doing from town to town or county to county.
And the numbers ARE getting ugly. The Associated Press on Wednesday reported that South Dakota had the highest positivity rate of any state in the U.S. during the previous 14 days at 23.35%, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
And we’re a success story?
Despite Noem’s claims about “not overstepping (her) authority,” I really believe that, when this pandemic began and as the toll grows now, a lot of people were and are looking for strong leadership to steer them through this storm. Many of us actually do want to follow the advice of medical experts because extraordinary times often demand extraordinary measures to reach the best possible end.
One worry is, if it comes to the point where more really is needed to be done statewide, would South Dakota actually do it? Or would that be seen as damaging the “brand” the governor has promoted for the state and herself?
South Dakota’s COVID success story is leaving a lot of people here wondering and worrying about what will happen next. And that’s a sub-headline to the story that must not be ignored.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.