It was Tuesday, March 10th, 2020, when Governor Kristi Noem made this announcement:
“The state’s public health lab has confirmed the first presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the state of South Dakota.”
She announced five cases tied to out-of-state travel—and the state’s first COVID-related death. It was an introduction to three words that would dominate the year – COVID-19, coronavirus and pandemic.
Three days later, by March 13th, there were 1,600 cases throughout the United States.
That same day Governor Noem declared a state of emergency in South Dakota. She called on all public k-12 schools to close for the week and encouraged private schools to do the same.
“I’m recommending the schools use this time to clean their facilities and to prepare for the following week.”
Students would be out of the classroom for the rest of the year.
On March 23rd, state Representative Bob Glanzer of Huron told the Argus Leader he had tested positive for COVID-19. Governor Noem issued an executive order that would set the tone of her response to the pandemic. Noem had guidance for individuals…employers…and healthcare organizations. It also led to some confusion.
Reporter: “I was looking through your executive order. It says municipal governments SHOULD. Is that a legal requirement? Or is that advice?”
Noem: “It’s telling them what they should do.”
The governor asked South Dakota residents to exercise personal responsibility.
Through April, that phrase signaled the governor’s pandemic approach. Noem stuck with conservative principles of limited government intervention…even as a majority of states were issuing shutdown orders and imposing stay-at-home restrictions.
“The calls to apply a one-size fits all solution is herd mentality. It’s not leadership.”
That left every city and county to create its own approach to the pandemic. Huron—an early hotspot in the state—was among the first to issue emergency ordinances closing bars…restaurants…and other public gathering areas.
On April 3rd, less than two weeks after his diagnosis was made public, Huron Representative Bob Glanzer died from COVID-19.
Days later, South Dakota had 288 positive COVID-19 cases—most of them in Minnehaha and Lincoln Counties. Governor Noem issued an executive order to high-risk residents of those counties:
“This group of individuals needs to take this very seriously. I need this group in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties to stay home.”
By mid-April, Sioux Falls became a hotspot with more than 200 COVID cases tied to the Smithfield meat packing plant. Governor Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked the company to close the plant for two weeks. It shut down indefinitely on April 12th, spurring concerns about pork shortages around the nation. Nearly 13-hundred employees eventually tested positive, and four died.
In late April, Governor Noem released a new strategy for the state. She called it the Back to Normal Plan. It encouraged employers to begin transitioning remote workers back to the office. The governor asked schools to consider an in-person “check in” with students before the end of the year. Governor Noem called on healthcare providers to build up a supply of independently sourced personal protective equipment. Criteria for this plan assumed the number of cases would start to go down. That didn’t happen.
In response to rising cases, the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux Tribes set up highway checkpoints on reservation boundaries. Cheyenne River’s tribal chairman Harold Frazier said it was a way to aid contact tracing and prevent further spread of the disease in his community.
“I feel we have to try something to assist us and try to keep it minimal as possible. So we feel this is a good mechanism to do that.”
Native Americans account for nine percent of the state’s population...but they account for 19% of COVID hospitalizations and 14% of the state’s COVID deaths.
Meanwhile, the governor was looking ahead to summer. There were plans in the works for a Fourth of July fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore. It would be the first in more than a decade, following a National Parks Service report that such an event would not significantly harm the environment. COVID projects at the time showed South Dakota hitting peak infections in mid-June.
Seth Tupper: “Are you concerned that it could potentially spread infections around with that number of people gathering in one place? "
Noem: “No, we’re gonna continue to evaluate that event and what it looks like. If people will be there, how many people will be there, and how we’ll facilitate it.”
In May, then President Donald Trump told a conservative talk show host he planned to attend the Mt. Rushmore event.
In early June, Governor Noem announced a lottery system would make 75-hundred tickets available for people to attend the Mt. Rushmore fireworks show. As COVID-19 cases continued to rise nationwide, Governor Noem told guests they should not expect social distancing measures.
“What I’m going to ask people to continue to do is if you’re sick, stay home. If you’re the vulnerable population and you’re worried about the virus, you should stay home.”
On July third, the governor addressed a full house:
“When we had the ticket system set up we had 123 THOUSAND sign up to be one of the 7500 to be in these seats! Congratulations to you here!”
And President Trump made good on his word:
“A very special hello to South Dakota!”
Four days later, the nation surpassed three million COVID-19 cases.
Throughout July and August, school leaders weighed their options for the fall. They looked for a safe way to get students back in the classroom. Governor Noem told reporters she would not issue another statewide school closure.
“The science is very clear on schools. Our schools should be open.”
When students did return, the state’s public universities required masks in public indoor spaces on campus. But each k-12 district decided its own policy. Some districts like Rapid City chose to wait and see how one of the state’s biggest summer events would impact local cases...
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brought more than 300-thousand people from across the country to the state in mid-August. Sturgis organizers cut back on many of the group activities and events saying they knew many people would come whether there was an official rally or not. Despite some efforts to prevent virus transmission, by the end of the month, the state’s COVID cases were up.
The spike continued through September as the Midwest gained national attention for its rising case counts. The Brookings City Council became the first to pass a temporary mask mandate after three hours of public comment. Near the end of September, the state set a record number of 579 new COVID cases reported in a single day.
In early October, state lawmakers met for a special session on how to spend federal CARES Act Funds. The pandemic relief money went to state programs, businesses and individuals through grants and unemployment payments. However, during the special session, lawmakers rejected proposals to ramp up COVID testing and contact tracing.
Later in October the state began to set new records for COVID infection. On October 20th, the Department of Health reported 1,559 new cases of COVID-19. A week later, another record: 395 COVID patients hospitalized in the state. Various hospital and health leaders launched the “Mask Up SoDak” campaign to encourage mitigation efforts.
But case counts continued to climb. By early November, 480 South Dakotans were hospitalized from COVID-19. Mike Elliott with Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls explained the situation to reporters:
“We just don’t have enough critical care trained nurses. We don’t have enough intensivists. We don’t have enough people to take care of all of these patients that are coming in.”
At that point, South Dakota was one of three states in the region without a statewide mask mandate. As Election Day drew near, Governor Noem traveled the country campaigning for President Trump. She continued to say state restrictions and mask mandates were not the right way to respond. Both Avera and Sanford health systems expressed support for a statewide policy, and more municipalities began to enact local ordinances.
On November 12th, a new record: more than 2-thousand new COVID cases in a single day. On Thanksgiving, there were more than 800 empty chairs set up on the state capitol lawn in Pierre to signify South Dakotans who’d died from the coronavirus.
December would be the state’s deadliest month: another 542 people dead.
But also in December, the FDA approves the first COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States.
By mid-December, South Dakota got its first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. They were followed by doses of the Moderna vaccine.
By the end of January South Dakota was among the top states in the nation for vaccine distribution. Infection and death rates begin to trend downward from the fall surge.
In late February, newly-elected President Biden led a moment of silence for the half-million Americans who died from COVID-19 in the past year.
One thousand-901 of those were South Dakotans. More than 100-thousand of the state’s residents have recovered from COVID-19. And now, a year since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the state, nearly a third of South Dakota’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.