The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The governor of the state second-hardest hit by the coronavirus probably shouldn’t be bragging about it

In this Jan. 23, 2019, photo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) gives her first budget address to lawmakers at the state Capitol in Pierre. (James Nord/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Think of every paragraph of this article as a separate month. This paragraph is February 2020, the month in which the coronavirus began to spread across the country uncontained. By the end of the month, the first American known to have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, was announced.

It took a while to be noticed in South Dakota. It wasn’t until March that the state announced its first detected cases, with Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) announcing that she was “confident we have the right people in place to address this fluid situation.” She urged residents of her state to be cautious.

In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday evening, Noem boasted about the state’s handling over the preceding 12 months (not for the first time).

“We knew the science told us we couldn’t stop the virus. We could slow it down and protect people who might be vulnerable and make sure we had enough hospital capacity to take care of those who would need it, but that we were going to do it together and allow people to be flexible, to take care of their families and still put food on the table,” she said. “So, you know, that was a unique approach that for our people really worked well. We did have tragedies, and we did have losses, but we also got through it better than virtually every other state.”

South Dakota’s “unique approach” over the course of the year was to shrug at mandated stay-at-home orders and to prioritize “personal freedom” over mandates to wear face coverings, which had been shown to slow the spread of the virus. As experts were pushing for people to take more preventive steps to slow the spread of the virus, Noem and other Republican leaders (including then-President Donald Trump) were pushing for a resumption of normal economic and social activity. For both Noem and Trump, the fight against the virus had blended into the broader partisan culture war.

That was certainly the case by July, which we’ve now reached with the sixth paragraph of this article. Noem hosted Trump for a Fourth of July event at Mount Rushmore, a national stage for the state as Trump’s reelection campaign shifted into gear — a campaign that depended on the virus receding and the economy surging. The event itself clearly demonstrated the state’s approach to the pandemic, with little evidence of precautionary measures in place. By July, 1 out of every 131 South Dakotans had already contracted the virus, the 17th highest infection rate in the country at the time. Out of every 10,000 residents in the state, one had died of covid-19.

It was an event in August, though, that likely reshaped the trajectory of the virus over the summer. Late that month, hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts traveled to Sturgis for an annual rally. There had been some discussion of canceling the event, given the highly contagious virus. Noem not only allowed it to move forward but encouraged it, telling Fox News that “we hope people come” because “our economy benefits when people come and visit us.”

The plan, mirroring Trump’s and as reflected in her self-praise on Tuesday, was to allow things to move forward as close to normal as possible and contain the damage from the resulting infections. By September, South Dakota was running about in the middle of the pack nationally, with the 27th highest number of cases relative to population. It was doing far better in terms of deaths, with 19 per 100,000 residents, among the lowest rates in the country.

Then it fell apart. A massive surge in new cases nationally originated in the Dakotas, a surge apparently linked to the Sturgis event. South Dakota’s effort to let people live their lives as normal was successful, with the caveat that living a normal life in a pandemic vastly increases the risk of infection.

By Nov. 1, 1 out of every 19 residents of the state had been infected with the virus. Out of every 2,100 South Dakotans alive at the beginning of the year, one had died of the virus. Hospitalizations began to surge, reaching a peak near the end of the month. Things got so bad that patients were flown out of state to facilities that had more capacity to handle coronavirus cases.

South Dakota ended 2020 with the second-highest number of population-adjusted coronavirus infections in the country. One out of every 9 residents had contracted the virus, and 1 out of every 600 had died of it. The only states where the death toll per capita were higher were Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Dakota and Rhode Island. Four of those states were slammed at the beginning of the pandemic, when New York City was the epicenter of infections and deaths. The two Dakotas surged to the top of the list months later — after preventive measures were better understood.

It wasn’t just the case that South Dakota hadn’t taken significant steps to encourage people to slow the virus’s spread. It was also, as the hospitalization surge showed, that the state wasn’t ready to handle the surge that would inevitably result. Despite Noem’s claims this week that the state was deliberate about “taking care of those who need it,” just under half of the deaths that occurred in the state were in long-term care facilities — exactly the sort of places that demanded the most concerted protection. As was known since early in the pandemic.

This is the 13th paragraph of this article, bringing us to February 2021. South Dakota, whose governor brags of her state’s success at controlling the virus, has seen more infections per resident than any state beside North Dakota. As of Feb. 1, 1 out of every 8.2 residents has contracted the virus, and 1 out of every 502 has died of it — still the sixth-worst death toll in the country.

That is not “getting through it better than virtually every other state.”