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'He Didn't Deserve To Die' State COVID Policy Remains As Disease Surges

Katrina Raysby

South Dakota remains a COVID hot spot, and has been for weeks.  

Governor Kristi Noem’s policy response to the pandemic has remained largely the same, even as the number of positive COVID 19 cases has set new daily records.  

Kathy James’ family has been careful, they’ve taken precautions. Despite that, her son-in-law, Doug  Raysby, died of COVID-19.

“Doug is… Doug was… Doug was everything that Trina and I are not,” James said. “He’s quiet and passive and easy going. Doesn’t ruffle feathers.”

Kathy James is a registered nurse. Her son-in-law Doug was cautious about the virus from the very beginning. When virus cases spiked in  Sioux Falls from an outbreak at the Smithfield plant,  Doug took days off  from his job to avoid possible infection. But, he maxed out his paid time off. 

 Kathy James says Doug was careful – he  wouldn’t even to the grocery store.

“When they were like, don’t use masks, don’t use masks, medical providers need them, I told them, I get that medical providers need them, but you guys need to figure something out or you need to stop going places because we can’t have you getting this.”

Doug was 57 years old and immune compromised. He was a type 1 diabetic, had rheumatoid arthritis and stage 4 kidney failure.

“None of those things, specifically, would have caused his death had it not been for COVID,” James says. “He managed himself very well. He checked his blood sugar meticulously.”

But one day James got a call from her daughter. Doug was developing symptoms and they got the news they hoped they wouldn’t. “And she was crying and she says, ‘Mom, he has COVID.’”

James, who is also immune compromised, rushed over to her daughter’s house.

Doug was in the Emergency Room alone--crying as he talked to them.

“He said, ‘Kathy, I am so sorry if I infected you with this.’  And I said, ‘You know, now is not about us. We’re going to be fine. Trina and I will be fine. You need to worry about you because you have the fight of your life ahead of you,” James says.

In just a few days, Doug’s health rapidly declined. Some days he would improve and  there was even talk of discharging him from the hospital. But Doug Raysby died after 10 days in the hospital.  

“He didn’t deserve to die,” James says. “Why? Why are people so selfish that they can’t be inconvenienced with a $2.50 piece of cloth to put over their face to keep other people from dying. It’s not that hard.”

South Dakota now has an  average of nearly 900 new COVID cases each day. More than  eleven thousand people are actively infected. At least three hundred and 75 South Dakotans have died.

The night Doug Raysby died,  Governor Kristi Noem was on Fox News.  

“My people are happy.”

Noem told  host Laura Ingraham that South Dakotans are happy the state didn’t shut down businesses and gave employers some flexibility. She praised the state’s low unemploment rate. Governor Noem says the media and the political left continue to attack her approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re doing really good in South Dakota,” Noem says. “We’re managing COVID 19, but also our economy is thriving. I think people are really recognizing that leadership has consequences. What we’re doing in South Dakota is Republican leadership.”

Early on, Noem put some important measures in place. She worked with the state’s hospital systems  to expand capacity for COVID patients. She closed schools in the spring and at one point ordered seniors in Minnehaha County, and those with immune issues, to stay home for two weeks.

However, from the beginning of the pandemic, the Republican governor has left it to local officials to impose  COVID-based requirements or restrictions on businesses. She questions whether masks slow the spread of the disease. She says the science is mixed.

“Where to begin," says Ashish Jha, the dean of public health at Brown University. “I don’t think the science here is mixed. The science is reasonably clear and has been evolving.”

Jha says in the early days of the pandemic, he questioned whether masks were effective at slowing the spread of the virus, too. That’s because then, there wasn’t a lot of evidence about how the virus spread.

“What changed my mind? Evidence,” Jha says. “One of the problems with science and data is you can always cherry-pick. You can always find one study out of 100 that goes in a certain direction.”

For weeks, South Dakotans have been told to focus on how many people are hospitalized  and the death rate. In a recent op-ed piece in the Rapid City Journal, Governor Noem pointed to the death rates in New York and New Jersey. Those states  have the worst death rates in the country since the pandemic began.

Jha says it’s disingenuous to blame New York for the large number of deaths that occurred in the early days of the pandemic. Since August, South Dakota’s death rate has been  seven times higher than New York. And this month, South Dakota has the second highest death rate in the country. New York -- the third lowest.

“When you don’t know and you get hit hard that’s very different than when you know what the right answer is and you ignore it and you get hit hard,” Jha says. 

Jha says South Dakota is in the middle of a massive public health crisis. Dozens of the state’s health care leaders agree. They say to keep South Dakota businesses open and keep people healthy, state residents need to get serious about wearing masks. They say that combined with frequent hand washing and social distancing can help curtail the spread of the coronavirus. 

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.