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South Dakota Health Systems Agree On Masks, Noem Questions Efficacy


The three major healthcare systems in South Dakota all agree—masks help slow the spread of COVID 19.

Each system requires a mask to enter its hospitals and clinics. They all recommend that people wear a mask in public, especially when social distancing is not possible.

However, there are some political leaders who still aren’t sure.

President Donald Trump has questioned masks. He’s refused to wear them in public, until recently. In fact, now, he occasionally mentions them.

“We strongly advise everyone especially, especially, focus on maintaining a social distance, maintaining rigorous hygiene, avoid large gathering and crowded indoor bars, and wear masks when appropriate," he says.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem continues to question the efficacy of masks.

“The mask situation with kids and with adults is very mixed research,” Noem says. “The science has not proven what’s effective and what isn’t and what type of mask. We have to stay objective when we look at it and really look at, still, the most helpful thing you can do, each and everyday, to slow down the spread of the virus, is to wash your hands.”

Noem says people should have the freedom to wear a mask if they choose to wear them.

Noem says science hasn’t shown that masks are effective in containing the spread of COVID. However, a recent study from the University of Washington shows if 95 percent of Americans wear cotton masks it can reduce virus transmission by thirty percent. That could prevent 40,000 deaths in the U.S.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control reports when it comes to virus transmission, South Dakota’s low population is not preventing spread of the disease. Recent numbers show the state has 963 cases of COVID 19 for every 100,000 residents. That’s higher than neighboring Minnesota – with 944 cases for every 100,000 people.

“It all goes back to clean hands, wearing a mask and social distancing," says Jill Tice, a vice president at Monument Health in Rapid City. She says a mask helps slow the spread of the virus in two ways.

“It creates that barrier of someone who may not know they’re positive, may not have signs or symptoms yet, to help control that source," Tice says. "Then, also, somebody who is just in the general public, where we’re not able to maintain six feet of social distancing. It’s creating a barrier and it does allow for a degree of protection when we’re not able to maintain that six feet of distance.”

The World Health Organization also says masks should be part of a comprehensive strategy to suppress virus transmission and save lives. It encourages masks as well as frequent hand washing and not touching your face.

South Dakota’s Avera Health also requires that patients in its facilities wear a mask.

Sanford takes the same approach. Julia Meyer is manager of Infection Prevention with Sanford Health. She says they require that all visitors to Sanford follow CDC guidance—which recommends wearing a mask.

“In house, since we have started wearing masks, we have started seeing a decrease of the amount of COVID between healthcare workers that are in our building,” Meyer says. “We do continue to track that. We still are learning. But, as far as the science that is out there, it does show that it is person to person transmission and with that mask we are decreasing the risk.”

Meyer says the most likely points of transmission are when people talk, sneeze or cough near each other. She says people can spread the virus, even when they do not have any symptoms.

Because this is a new version of the coronavirus, Meyer says Sanford recommends what works.

“This is really different than anything we’ve dealt with before. We’re really trying to protect everyone," Meyer says. "The mask wearing is really, at this time with the science we know, it really is a recommendation that can keep people safe.”

Meyer says that’s especially important as people return to work and kids return to school.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.