Last month, a statewide hydroxychloroquine trial brought together researchers from Sanford, Avera and Monument health systems. While that trial has been discontinued, all three health systems are still working on other important research related to COVID-19.

“We really don’t know a lot about this disease, every day and every week we’re learning more, but there’s so much we don’t know,” Director of Monument Health Research Roger DeRaad said. 

It’s a common theme you’ll hear from researchers studying the illness at the heart of the global pandemic.

“This continues to be very evolving, this virus is humbling to say the least because we’re learning as we go,” Avera Medical Group Chief Medical Officer Kevin Post said.

You’ll hear the same sentiments from healthcare providers at Avera, Sanford and Monument Health. 

“I think there’s always more to learn,” Senior Vice President of Quality at Sanford Health Jeremy Cauwels said.

All of South Dakota’s major Health Systems are continuing work to research the many questions still unanswered about this virus.

“The only tool that we have to get the answers that we need are clinical trials,” DeRaad said. 

While the statewide hydroxychloroquine trials ended with a different answer than expected, the health systems say they still learned some important information.

“Research literally is just a scientific process of learning, sometimes we’re going to learn things work great and sometimes we’re going to learn things don’t work as well as we had hoped,” Cauwels said.

Another area of research several of the state’s health systems are working on is showing a much more positive answer for helping to battle COVID-19.

“We continue to be involved as we were early on with convalescent plasma where we take the antibodies from people who have preciously had the condition and were able to transfuse those to those needing it,” Post said. “We’ve learned a lot along the way.”

Through this trial, South Dakota’s health care professionals are learning more about the safety of convalescent plasma treatments and the most effective timing to give the transfusions. It’s information gained thanks to the growing number of willing participants in the state.

“We’ve got 75 participants in that program out of the approximately 165 patients we’ve treated for COVID that have been hospitalized here,” DeRaad said.

DeRaad sayd South Dakota’s smaller population makes it an ideal location to run these kind of clinical trials.

“We are approached very often for prestigious trials that many sites are trying to participate in because we have a rural and Native American population and we’re anxious that those populations be included in the data,” DeRaad said.

Sanford Health’s Jeremy Cauwels agrees the state’s smaller population will continue to draw more important COVID-related research to the state, especially when vaccination trials are ready to begin. 

“I think it will make us more attractive to those companies that are trying to find a population of people who haven’t had COVID. It will be a lot easier to find them here than in a place like New York,” Cauwels said. “We’d like to find 30,000 South Dakotans who are interested in the trial.”

While the health systems await an opportunity to start vaccination trials, they’re all busy working to answer other research questions related to the virus.

“The risk of COVID-19 during pregnancy is higher, so we’re following those mothers whether they require hospitalizations and whether they have complications,” Post said. 

Avera’s OBGYNs are studying the virus in pregnant women to help understand how to provide better treatment and care down the road.

“We are still well in the pandemic with many more months to go, so what can we learn from that to better apply to our obstetrics patients as we get closer to this,” Post said..

“PPE has been enormously effective at preventing people from getting the illness, but at the same time we’d like to know numbers on that, we’d like to know how good,” Cauwels said.

Sanford Health is beginning a new antibody surveillance trial, testing the asymptomatic spread of the virus among its own front line healthcare workers.

“It will tell us a lot more about how the disease spreads, the rate that we can expect it to spread and also a lot more about how to keep our people healthy which is obviously the goal,” Cauwels said.

“We have a lot of arterial/venous thrombotic events, the arterial events can be strokes, heart attacks,” DeRaad said.

Monument Health is starting a new randomized trial next week investigating the higher rate of blood clots and strokes among covid-19 patients in the ICU. The Rapid City hospital is also conducting trials to learn the effectiveness of a new medication for treating the sickest covid-19 patients. 

“If you’re diagnosed with covid, clinical research trials are the sword that you use to fight back,” DeRaad said. “Randomized clinical trials are the only kind of trials that give us a definitive answer that we can hang our hat on and use to treat future patients.”

The research going on in South Dakota right now isn’t solely centered on the coronavirus, but also the other health impacts this pandemic may have.  Avera Health is conducting a long-term study on what the social changes means for children’s health in the state. 

“We have over 4,000 participants from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, looking at the effect of the pandemic on them such as decreased activity being quarantined at home, what will that do to childhood obesity rates? Also there’s a significant increase in screen time with children that is not education related so we’re going to be following those children through and after the pandemic to see if there is any fall out with that as well,” Post said. 

All examples of important research happening across the state to help guide everyone through this pandemic.

“It’s really nice to have these opportunities for our communities,” DeRaad said. “Many people in South Dakota may not feel like they have cutting edge opportunities for treating COVID, but I think all three of our health systems have interesting and important trials that we’re looking into that will be important.”