Two Indigenous South Dakota lawmakers are asking Gov. Kristi Noem for a statewide mask mandate to reduce the spread of COVID-19, as state health officials reported Monday, Nov. 30, the number of South Dakotans who have tested positive for COVID-19 surpassed 80,000.
State Rep. Peri Pourier and Sen. Red Dawn Foster, both Democrats, sent Noem a letter last week imploring her to implement a statewide mask mandate, as COVID-19 deaths in the state topped 1 in 1,000 state residents.
"There really isn't a need to battle over statistics and politics right now. This isn't a political game of playing roulette with our communities or our families," the two District 27 lawmakers wrote. "It is an issue of public health that surpasses political parties and hits the core of our humanity."
The two compared it to statewide smoke-free laws, speed limit and seat-belt laws as common-sense approaches to protecting South Dakotans from harm.
"As indigenous women, we are writing from the earnest position of granddaughters, sisters, mothers, and the life-givers of our culture and people," they wrote. "It has been ingrained into us that our decisions must take into consideration the care and safety of our communities and our people above our individual selves."
Noem, a Republican, had yet to respond to the lawmakers' letter as of Sunday, Rep. Pourier said in a Facebook post.
On Monday, Forum News Service reached out to Noem's office for a response to the letter. Maggie Seidel, Noem's senior policy adviser, responded by asking if FNS has sought evidence from the two lawmakers on the effectiveness of mask mandates.
"Mask mandates don’t work – they haven’t worked anywhere in the world. We respectfully request the news media cover the facts," Seidel wrote.
Noem has repeatedly said she doesn't support statewide mask mandates, doesn't believe they're effective and said she won't issue one in South Dakota — despite support for such a mandate from the state's physicians and its two largest health systems, based on a growing body of scientific research. Noem has defended those who choose not to wear masks, calling their use a matter of personal choice and responsibility.
There have been 80,464 cases recorded by South Dakota health officials after 564 new cases Monday, the lowest daily total in four week, although the state’s 1,108 new tests are also the fewest recorded since Nov. 13.
Still, new cases over the past week pushed South Dakota back into the No. 1 hot spot in the country, with 110.7 new reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week, after dipping to No. 5 Friday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials reported 17,184 active cases of the virus, the highest total since Nov. 23.
With three new COVID-19 deaths reported Monday, the state’s total now sits at 946. South Dakota has the highest COVID-19 death rate per capita of any state over the past week, according to the CDC.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 remained steady through the weekend, with 546 people currently hospitalized, up two from Sunday, but down 23 from Nov. 27.
But health officials said the leveling off of a number of measurements, including active cases and hospitalizations, is welcome news, even though the statistics are plateauing at a high level.
The flattened surge is a "direct result of the public really taking it to heart and upping their game" on mask-wearing, social distancing and quarantining, said Dr. David Basel, vice president of clinical quality at Avera Medical Group, in a COVID-19 press conference in Sioux Falls on Monday, featuring health and city officials..
“We’ve seen that level of all of those activities increase, and that’s a direct result of now where we’re kind of leveling out on our admissions. But we have to sustain now," he said. "So we can’t take our foot off the gas or things will just start right back increasing again.”