The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Dakota’s covid-19 numbers have been terrible, but the governor says that’s the wrong metric

(Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee/AP)
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“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. So 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 Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), in an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Feb. 2

Noem has attracted significant attention for these remarks, made after she was questioned about a tough New York Times “opinion video” that, in the words of the Times, aimed to “unpack her deadly playbook for how to handle a pandemic all wrong while preserving a reputation for being credible and competent.”

The main point of contention is Noem’s statement that South Dakota “got through it better than virtually any other state.” As the Times video and our colleague Philip Bump recounted, the coronavirus numbers for South Dakota are pretty terrible.

“South Dakota ended 2020 with the second-highest number of population-adjusted coronavirus infections in the country,” Bump wrote. “One out of every 9 residents had contracted the virus, and 1 out of every 600 had died of it.” (By February, the numbers showed that 1 out of 8 residents had gotten the virus and 1 of 500 residents had died of it.)

In particular, South Dakota (along with North Dakota) surged near the top of the list after the transmission of the virus and preventive measures were better understood. In August, Noem encouraged attendance to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where a gathering of nearly 500,000 people is believed to have led to a surge of infections across the Upper Midwest.

So this made us curious — what type of metrics is Noem using to make her claim? It turns out, it is not really about health outcomes. As a reader service, here’s what she is talking about.

The Facts

Ian Fury, the governor’s communications director, first directed us to Noem’s annual budget message, delivered in December. “The state hasn’t issued lockdowns or mandates,” Noem said. “We haven’t shut down businesses or closed churches. In fact, our state has never even defined what an ‘essential business’ is. That, quite simply, is not the government’s role.”

Instead, she argued, “even amid a pandemic, public policy ought to be holistic. Daily needs must still be met. People need to eat and keep a roof over their heads. And they still need purpose. That means policymakers cannot have tunnel vision. They must balance public health concerns with people’s mental and emotional needs, their economic livelihoods and social connections, and liberty, among many other important factors.”

In particular, Noem bragged that the state’s finances were solid, unlike other states that had instituted lockdowns and mask mandates.

Fury offered four metrics that he said Noem was referring to when she asserted South Dakota was getting through the pandemic better than virtually any other state. Only one is directly related to the pandemic.

  • South Dakota currently ranks fifth in total doses of the vaccine administered. The state “is a national leader in vaccine distribution, by all accounts the best way that we can fight this virus over the long-run,” Fury said.
  • South Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, “lower than it was prior to the pandemic,” he said.
  • South Dakota ranks fourth for inbound moves (and fifth when outbound moves are subtracted from inbound moves), according to the Annual National Migration Study, issued by United Van Lines. “South Dakota is a national leader in folks moving to the state,” Fury said. “By all accounts, this is out of a desire to escape pandemic lockdowns in other states. This is setting our economy up for long-term expansion.”
  • South Dakota is enjoying a $19 million budget surplus, with general fund revenue up by 19.4 percent, a point Noem made in her budget address. “We are in a far better spot than states that resorted to rigorous lockdowns and decimated their economies as a result,” Fury said, noting that New York is expecting a $15 billion budget gap and Minnesota is facing a $1.3 billion budget deficit. “Because South Dakota is not in a similar situation, we are able to make targeted investments to set our state up for long-term success,” he said. Barron’s in August ranked South Dakota third in the nation for creditworthiness.

Still, it’s striking that South Dakota, a relatively rural state, has death and illness rates that rival the numbers of much more densely populated states. According to a Washington Post tracker of deaths per 100,000 residents, South Dakota is the fifth worst state, with 207 reported deaths per 100,000, after New Jersey (245), New York (224), Massachusetts (216) and Rhode Island (209). The state ranks second, after North Dakota, in cases per 100,000 residents.

We shared charts with Fury that showed how poorly South Dakota fared on health-care metrics and asked whether Noem thought those results were troubling. “Governor Noem has said several times that even one death is too many,” Fury replied.

He suggested it was too early to make such comparisons between states. “It’s important to remember that America appears to be at the peak of a second wave of the pandemic. South Dakota was on the front end of this wave, peaking in November and steadily decreasing in spread of the virus since then,” Fury said. “On the other hand, the nation as a whole is peaking in deaths as we speak. From New York and Rhode Island in the Northeast to Arizona in the Southwest, cases and deaths are up in states nationwide. The only days in which deaths nationwide eclipsed 4,000 were all in January 2021, long after South Dakota’s pandemic spread had subsided. So an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult to do when other states are still on the upswing.”

In a report released Feb. 4, WalletHub rated South Dakota currently as the 16th safest state during the pandemic, based on an overall score that includes the vaccination rate, the positive testing rate, the hospitalization rate, the death rate and the estimated transmission rate. (North Dakota was rated the second safest state.)

The Bottom Line

In her remarks on Fox, Noem was relatively vague about what she was referring to when she claimed South Dakota did better than just about any other state. A reasonable person would assume she was talking about coronavirus cases and deaths — which would be false.

But Noem made her comment in the context of allowing people to “put food on the table.” Apparently, she views the crisis more through an economic lens — employment numbers, budget surplus, new residents — than a health lens. Only one of those metrics — the unemployment rate — puts South Dakota in first place, though it’s certainly in the top ranks in the other areas cited by her spokesman.

We will leave it to readers to judge whether her metrics are appropriate in a health emergency. Whether this approach works for her is open to question. An October report ranks her 45th in terms of popularity among governors for her handling of the pandemic, though her approval rating may have improved since then as the coronavirus cases in her state have come down.

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