This story has been updated to show the governor’s office disagreeing with the state’s classification in a study about actions taken, and to include dates of the inner-workings of the Noem administration’s response to COVID-19, after responses from her office late Thursday and Friday.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) is mobilizing the South Dakota National Guard to build temporary hospitals in Sioux Falls and Rapid City to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients, as the pandemic begins to ramp up in the state. The news comes just 28 days after her first COVID-19 news release.

“There is a low risk for South Dakotans to become infected with coronavirus,” said Noem in her first press release about COVID-19 on March 5. “Regardless, we are prepared.”

Noem has said in recent weeks, the state has been preparing for COVID-19 since January.

“We knew what was happening in China. We were watching it. I started learning and researching the virus and how it spreads back then,” Gov. Noem said in an interview with KELOLAND News last week.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Noem continued her stance on being one of the last states in the country without a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.

“Our constitution ensures the citizens’ right is protected. I agree with the role of government set forth in our state and in our national constitution. I took an oath to uphold these constitutions; my role in respect to public safety is something that I take very seriously,” she said.

She said it was everyone’s personal responsibility to take the right actions.

“The objective here is not to stop the spread of the virus in the state; the science tells us that is not possible. We can’t stop it. What we are trying is to slow the spread, flatten the curve,” Noem said.

KELOLAND News analyzed the last three months and the administration’s response to COVID-19 in an interactive timeline above.

UPDATE: Gov. Noem’s office provided key dates on some of the behind-the-scenes work in preparing for COVID-19.

  • The Health Department began monitoring the situation in January and began providing weekly situation updates to the Governor at that time.
  • The Health Department began regular internal planning meetings on January 22. 
  • The Health Department launched its COVID-19 website on January 27.
  • The Health Department activated its internal EOC on February 10.
  • The Health Department briefed members of the legislature regarding preparations on March 7.

When the peak will come

According to the governor, internal models show the peak of infections may have been moved back into late summer.

The latest information from Noem is that 30% of the state’s population will get COVID-19, which is equivalent to the populations of Sioux Falls and Rapid City getting it. Most of those cases, the state believes, will be mild. Various projections have shown somewhere in the hundreds of possible deaths in the state. The state said it’s looking at a 0.5 to 3.0% death rate among those who contract the novel strain of Coronavirus.

A shift in messaging

“We are still at the level where there is a low risk for the people of South Dakota to become infected with COVID-19 (coronavirus), but we are prepared,” Noem said on her Facebook page on Feb. 28.

That was the first public statement KELOLAND News could find from Noem, who has used social media a tool to communicate to South Dakotans during the pandemic.

As the pandemic worsened, Noem’s message changed. She encouraged people to take precautions like washing hands and staying home if you’re sick, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a Facebook Live from the Emergency Operations Center, Noem said she was making decisions based on South Dakota information.

“We are not watching national news and listening to other countries, and what we’re using the science of it and data of it,” she said as the CBS Evening News was playing behind her and moments earlier, Fox News was playing one of the monitors, in addition to local news.

Pressing pause and going outside

In late March, Noem encouraged people to head outside, but to practice social distancing. She did a Facebook Live from Farm Island State Recreation Area in Pierre with her family.

She also shared photos of her family visiting Badlands National Park a few days later. While the visitor center is closed at the park, the roads and paths remain open.

On March 25, the governor decided to take no questions from the media and instead delivered a message for the state to “press pause.”

“I want to ask each and every one of you to pause, to take a step back,” Noem said.

She mentioned a state employee passed out from working too hard. The governor also offered suggestions for people, including going for a walk or calling a loved one.

“If there’s anything we can all rally around today at this moment is that we all have a common enemy and that’s this virus. It is okay to be uncertain at times, but at the same time, we must pour ourselves into our families, into our neighbors, and into our communities,” Noem said.

Sustaining the fight against COVID-19

Throughout all of this time, Noem has remained adamant about taking a sustainable approach to managing the situation because this is not a one or two-week virus.

The governor has made at least two appearances on Fox News to share that viewpoint.

“We have a marathon in front of us; this is not a sprint,” Noem said during a media briefing on Thursday.

Using Instagram to share her life during pandemic

As many Americans adapt to a new way of life, by staying home more often, Noem has tried to use social media to offer a lighter tone, including encouraging her children to participate in social distancing.

On Wednesday, after the state announced its second COVID-19 death, Noem shared a video from what appeared to be the Governor’s Office in the executive residence, showing her daughter, who is also a policy analyst in her administration, demonstrating workout moves during “meetings.”

The post struck some of her Instagram followers the wrong way.

“Meanwhile the South Dakota medical board has begged you close non-essential businesses to protect the health of your citizens and you’re focused on a new workout,” one commenter said. “Yes, you’re not NYC, but taking these strong measures will help save lives.”

What measures to take?

This underscores the complex problem Noem is trying to tackle. While most states, and even some Native American tribes in South Dakota, have enacted strong mitigation measures, they haven’t been mandated at the federal level. Thus far, President Donald Trump has said he wants to give governors “flexibility” on whether a stay-at-home policy is the best option.

“There are some states that are different,” Trump said Wednesday. “There are some states that don’t have much of a problem.”

In a report released this week by several public health researchers, South Dakota is listed as the lone state with what they call “limited action.”

“To prevent hospital overload, our projections indicate a Stay at Home order must be implemented between April 13th and April 18th at the latest,” Covid Act Now said.

Noem’s office disagreed with the group classifying the state as taking limited action, instead of social distancing. Her executive order does call for voluntary social distancing and she previously had closed schools. The definition from COVID Act Now for social distancing is: “Voluntary “stay at home” directive for high-risk groups, schools and bars / restaurants closed.”

The state, as of Thursday, is still relying on a patchwork of regulations across different levels of government.

The Noem administration acknowledged on Thursday if there was a surge today, the hospitals may not be able to handle it, but they are working with health systems on the ability to prepare for more patients.

Noem has continued to stress that people are primarily responsible for their actions and that people should focus on what’s happening in South Dakota and not the rest of the country.

Noem said she’s spent hours studying modeling forecasts for the potential number of state deaths.

“And the numbers we see are pretty encouraging because we have a state that is pretty rural and remote,” Noem said.

She added that South Dakota is not stopping the virus, but we are slowing the spread. She said the people of South Dakota have been doing a good job of taking the stay at home request seriously, though it’s unclear how she has come to that conclusion.

On Friday, Noem is expected to release the COVID-19 modeling and projection data the state is analyzing.

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