A public records request goes ignored by the State of South Dakota, until KELOLAND Investigates stepped in. Now just a week later, the data on staffed hospital beds is available to the public online. RuralOrganizing.org asked for the number of staffed hospital beds, staffed intensive care unit beds and the number of ventilators in the state.

When the South Dakota Department of Health did not respond to the public records request, the group’s executive director reached out to KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke for help.
Last week, we asked the state if KELOLAND Media group could obtain the same information.

The following day the Department of Health’s legal council Justin Williams said that “The data was contained in numerous sources and not easily extracted,” but provided it to us.

Tuesday, the South Dakota Department of Health began supplying that data on its website for the public to see.

Today a check of the DOH’s website finds that 34 percent of staffed hospital beds are still available in the state, along with 40 percent of staffed ICU beds.

The key to remember here, when it comes to planning for a surge in COVID-19 cases, what matters most isn’t how many beds are available, rather how many are actually staffed.

We’ve heard from doctors and nurses on the front lines of the pandemic about how busy they are.

This tweet from a Yankton doctor says: “Had another patient diverted to our ICU today. Hospitals in SFalls are overwhelmed. Same in SCity and Omaha.”

“Just having an ICU bed is not what’s needed. We need to have the nurses and doctors to staff those beds. That’s something that’s really concerning. I’m not aware of any public information that says how many doctors and nurses are needed in the state and the state has been needing more nurses and doctors for years.”

Matt Hildreth, Executive Director of RuralOrganizing.org

Rural Organizing.org calls itself a progressive organization for rural communities, focusing on issues like health care. This week we sat down with two Sanford Health officials and asked them about staffing needs.

Kennecke: As we see the patient numbers increasing, do you have the personnel to keep up with everything?
Sanford VP of Operations, Andrew Munce: Yeah, we believe we do. This goes back to the conversations we’ve had since March when we look at surge plans. Yes, we are busy. We do have the personnel we need at this point.

Sanford Health medical personnel at work on the COVID-19 unit/PHOTO Courtesy of Sanford Health

Avera Health says it currently has enough staff to keep up with demand; issuing the following statement to KELOLAND News:

Staffing is a major concern with community spread. Our teams are working extremely hard – and we continue to evaluate and adjust our staffing as needed given our surge planning levels. A healthy workforce is vital in caring for our patients. Everyone can do their part by being diligent with masking, social distancing and practicing proper hand hygiene. Sincerest thanks to our health care heroes for their dedication to caring for our communities.

Cale Feller, Avera Health Director of Media Relations & Corporate Communications, Marketing

The South Dakota Secretary of Health says the state is aware of medical workers’ concerns about being spread too thin:

“We can appreciate that people have been giving their all every single day, for many, many months now. But we’ve got some months ahead of us. So we’ve got to be strong to do what we can to take care of the folks that need us,” South Dakota Secretary of Health, Kim Malsam-Rysdon, said.

“What is the tipping point is the primary question that we should be concerned with. I’m not aware of any data from the state–aside from just licensed beds–that is tracking when we will hit that tipping point,” Hildreth said.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, South Dakota has among the lowest ICU beds per capita in the country, but currently, the state shows that COVID-19 cases are taking up 21 percent of them.

Snapshot from SD DOH website on 10/14/20 at 3:54 p.m.