Noem: Up to 70% of South Dakota may get the coronavirus

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Up to 70% of the population of South Dakota might get COVID-19, Gov. Kristi Noem said Friday, though she insisted that a statewide stay-at-home order wouldn’t be worth the disruption it would cause even though she acknowledged it would help slow the spread of the disease.

Noem upped her predictions of how many of South Dakota’s nearly 900,000 residents will contract the disease, saying during a news conference at the Capitol that anywhere from 30% to 70% of them might.

The state is preparing for as many as 5,000 hospitalizations when the disease is expected to peak in South Dakota in mid-June, the Republican governor said.

Despite the unsettling projections, Noem said she plans to keep South Dakota among the dwindling number of states that haven’t issued stay-at-home orders, calculating that the state’s hospitals will be ready to handle the peak crush of infections. She acknowledged that a stay-at-home order would slow the spread of the virus and push the peak of infections out further, but she said she doesn’t think it would be worth prolonging school closures, keeping people out of work, or disrupting daily life.

When reporters asked what the state projects its death toll from the virus will be, Noem declined to give a specific number but referred to Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon’s estimates that the death rate could range from 0.5% to 3%. With those figures, the number of deaths would be between roughly 1,325, at 0.5% of a 30% infection rate, and 18,000, at 3% of a 70% infection rate.

Noem said she hoped that treatments that are still being developed for the coronavirus would decrease the number of people who die.

Josh Clayton, the state epidemiologist, said Noem’s administration based its strategy on the state’s ability to provide hospital beds, not the number of deaths from the disease.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The state’s hospitals can currently expand to take care of 4,400 people, according to Malsam-Rysdon. But those beds also serve people who need care for other reasons.

Noem said the state’s hospitals would also need 1,300 ventilators. They currently have 525. She has tasked the National Guard with building temporary hospitals that could accommodate a total of 200 people.

Health officials reported earlier Friday that 22 more people had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the state’s tally of COVID-19 cases to 187. About a third of those people have recovered, but three have died.

The latest death came from the Prince of Peace Retirement Community in Sioux Falls. Avera Health, which operates the facility, said one of the residents died of COVID-19 and two other residents are infected with it.

Doctors from the state’s three largest health care providers joined Noem at the news conference to offer their support for her plan, saying they were working to expand their hospitals’ capacities.

They continued to ask people to stay at home if at all possible, though Noem is relying on encouraging people to take personal responsibility to do so, rather than requiring business closures or curfews.

Her reluctance to issue statewide mandates has made vocal critics of the mayors of the state’s largest cities.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender earlier this week told the Legislature that “cities and counties have been absolutely left on their own” by Noem’s inaction. Lawmakers were considering an emergency bill that would have given municipalities the power to quickly enact business closures or stay-at-home orders.

House lawmakers did not pass that bill. The governor also opposed a part of the bill that would have let municipalities skip over wait periods during a public health emergency.

As Sioux Falls emerges as a hotbed of infections, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said Friday that it would take six days to move a stay-at-home order through the waiting period required by the City Council.

He said, “Things change hour to hour.”

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