SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — COVID-19 is here to stay.

Three years after the first COVID-19 death in South Dakota, leaders with Sanford Health and Avera Health both acknowledged that while the illness has reached endemic levels, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“For everything that I see, COVID is likely here to stay for at least the immediate future because this is a new illness and we’re not quite sure of what the future brings,” Dr. Joseph Segeleon, vice president and medical officer of Sanford Children’s Hospital, said Friday.

South Dakota is, of course, still seeing a level of infection but compared to 2022 and 2021, it’s much more manageable. That’s due in part to treatments available at home for patients.

“The current condition with COVID is it has reached more of what we could call an endemic level, where it’s more just within the communities much like you would think of conditions such as influenza and RSV,” Avera’s chief medical officer Kevin Post explained. “So, it will be a focus on outpatient treatment of, how do we treat our patients in a preventative way, but also a proactive way once they do become ill.”

At the start of the pandemic, so much was unknown about the respiratory illness especially when it came to treatment. Now, in addition to widely available vaccines, patients with COVID-19 can treat their symptoms at home with medications such as Paxlovid. But, Post explained, it’s important to consult with your primary care physician to see if it’s recommended based on your medical history.

“Certain conditions such as kidney conditions, things like that, you may or may not qualify,” Post said. “Also, your age or other diagnosis you may have can make you a candidate or not.”

Active cases remain low, but steady

Cases and hospitalizations may not be quite to the level they were in 2020 and 2021, but infections are still happening. The latest data from the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH) shows that there are currently 473 active cases, down from 617 the week before. There are 68 people hospitalized with the illness and deaths are up to 3,190 with nine new deaths reported this week.

“You could, you may say that’s secondary to our ability to immunize individuals as well as population health and the immunity that people have gained with being infected and being exposed to the virus,” Segeleon said.

Right now, there’s still a lot to be learned about COVID including whether the illness will take on a seasonality in the way that influenza does.

“We certainly know that we have increased respiratory illnesses in the cooler seasons,” Segeleon explained. “Usually, that’s because people are socializing inside. That is when we traditionally see our influenza season as well as our RSV season, although our RSV season this year was prolonged and severe. But as far as COVID goes, we continue to see persistent cases.”

That being said, Segeleon said there hasn’t been a COVID peak in a while but still, doctors are always watching and preparing for a potential surge.

Workforce issues still persist in SD nursing

Post said that they are seeing a steady level of admissions at Avera but significantly less than a year ago.

“I think COVID patients are just one segment of the capacity issues that we are feeling in health care,” Post said. “So, there’s multiple health conditions related to that. Really it is now our workforce shortage that’s leading to capacity issues, not COVID itself.”

The pandemic led many nurses to leave the industry due to burnout, increased patient loads and pay. In February, Avera Health and South Dakota State University announced a $1 million grant to expand programs at the university in hopes of addressing the shortage in rural South Dakota.

Both Post and Segeleon expressed gratitude to the frontline workers for their work over the last three years.

“I think we’ve stepped up and shown our teamwork with the ability to take care of these patients,” Segeleon said.

The pandemic also brought to light the importance and versatility of telehealth services, especially for rural patients. For Avera, Post said that they were prepared for the growth in that industry at the start of the pandemic.

“Also, I think home care, Avera at home, has really been able to care for our patients right in the comfort of their own living room so they do not only not have to go out to seek care and even avoid the complications of coming into hospitals, we can now reach them right where they are,” Post said.