SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Personal responsibility continues to drive Governor Kristi Noem’s approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the weekend the governor appeared on Fox News where she discussed a variety of topics, including South Dakota’s 41% COVID-19 positivity rate. When asked by the host what Gov. Noem was doing in South Dakota with the coronavirus pandemic, Noem answered, “We are doing exactly what we’ve been doing the last two years.”
Governor Noem is referring to her personal responsibility approach to COVID-19, the governor’s communication director, Ian Fury, told KELOLAND News in an email.
“Since the start of the pandemic, Governor Noem and the Department of Health have provided the people of South Dakota with the science, facts, and data and trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones,” Fury said.
Governor Noem said that in South Dakota, she is not focusing on case counts.
Tuesday, the positivity rate for COVID-19 in South Dakota dropped from 41% to 40.3% and active cases are currently at 36,155. During the Winter 2020 wave, COVID-19 cases peaked at 19,360. Today, active cases are almost double that.
Instead of focusing on surging cases, the governor said her office is keeping an eye on hospital capacity. Hospitalizations have been steadily increasing throughout January but are not quite to the levels seen in the Winter 2020 peak. Fury says that the governor, and the Department of Health, are focusing on the number of available beds across the state.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have focused on monitoring hospital capacity and worked with our hospital systems to ensure that we can care for those who truly get sick,” Fury said.
Dr. Michael Elliot, Chief Medical Officer at Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, says that it’s important to remember that when cases surge, there is usually a two-week gap between hospitalization increases, and another two-week gap before deaths increase.
“We have not, to this point, seen any decrease in our COVID hospitalizations. In fact, compared to a couple weeks ago we are up quite a bit,” Dr. Elliot told KELOLAND News on Tuesday.
Dr. Elliot says that their models are projecting a peak in COVID-19 hospitalizations a few weeks from now. At Avera, they are preparing for hospital numbers to continue to increase before they see a drop. The health system is also busy with normal daily hospitalizations such as accidents, heart attacks and strokes. “And then we have COVID on top of it,” Dr. Elliot said.
According to the latest update from the South Dakota Department of Health, the Sioux Empire area is seeing the most hospitalizations due to COVID-19. As of January 25, there is only 16% availability in that region while the Black Hills has 27.6% availability. Avera McKennan is listed as having 102 beds occupied due to COVID-19 while Sanford USD Medical Center has 106 hospital beds occupied. Monument Health in Rapid City has 106 beds filled due to COVID-19.
When it comes to ICU capacity, there is only 7.7% availability in the Black Hills and 39.7% ICU availability in the Sioux Empire. The Department of Health lists Avera McKennan as having 29 COVID-19 occupied beds in the ICU while Sanford USD Medical Center has 20 ICU beds filled due to COVID-19. At Monument Health in Rapid City, 20 ICU beds are occupied with COVID-19.
Dr. Elliot explained that while some smaller, regional hospitals may have more availability at this time, they don’t always have the same staff and resources that larger health systems have. In Sioux Falls, Avera is utilizing their “acute unit” which Dr. Elliot describes as an in-between of a general hospital bed and the ICU.
“Frankly, we are currently taking care of patients that normally would be in an ICU, in some of these acute units just because we don’t have room in our ICU’s.”
On top of that, the health system is also noticing an increased workload for all staff. Dr. Elliot says that while nursing staff may have the same number of patients, they are showing higher levels of sickness which makes their job more difficult. Nursing managers are also taking bedside shifts to help, according to Dr. Elliot.
And it’s not just nurses seeing an increased workload, Dr. Elliot says that administrative staff, therapists, physicians and even the pharmacy staff are being stretched thin right now.
At Sanford Health, there are 231 people hospitalized with COVID-19. Of those, 143 are unvaccinated, 88 are vaccinated, and 32 have received the booster shot. In the ICU, 37 of the 49 patients are unvaccinated, 12 are vaccinated, and 4 have received the booster shot. There is one person who has received a booster shot on a ventilator with 6 vaccinated people and 23 unvaccinated people on a ventilator.
The majority of patients hospitalized at Avera Health with COVID-19 are unvaccinated according to the health system. 85% of hospitalized patients are not vaccinated or have not received their booster shots. In the ICU, 87% patients and 95% of ventilated patients are unvaccinated or not boosted.
COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide protection against Omicron, even if it is not at the same level as they did with the Delta variant, according to Dr. Elliot.
“Those people that are vaccinated and boosted, that get the Omicron variant of COVID are much less likely to be hospitalized, need an intensive care unit or be ventilated,” Dr. Elliot said. “In fact, about 95% of our COVID patients on a ventilator are not vaccinated.”
In her interview with Fox News, Gov. Noem said that regardless of vaccination status, “…we are gonna give them as many options as possible to get through this and to be healthy again.”