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SD governor rejects 'feel good' shelter-in-place order around COVID-19 stricken pork plant, now with 438 cases

Gov. Kristi Noem defended what she called the state's "targeted, intense approach" to the growing number of Smithfield cases and said a stay-home order would not have stopped the spread of the virus at the plant.

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Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Gov. Kristi Noem says she won't issue a shelter-in-place order around a Sioux Falls meatpacking plant that is quickly becoming one of the nation's worst coronavirus hotspots, portraying it as a "feel good" move, Tuesday, April 14.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken had requested a three-week shelter-in-place order from Noem for Minnehaha and Lincoln counties, home to the city, as the number of cases at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant climb to 438, with another 107 linked to those cases.

"One of the things that somebody told me a week or so ago was that I should always keep my eye on the ball and make sure I'm making decisions to actually do good, not make decisions that just make people feel good," she said after saying she was rejecting TenHaken's request. "That has been one of the things I think about quite often when it comes to pivotal moments when it comes to protecting people's health."

State health officials on Tuesday said they found another 88 coronavirus cases among the workforce of the now-shuttered plant, which employs 3,700.

Smithfield said it was winding down activity at the facility and would close it indefinitely starting Wednesday as testing continues on its workers, their family members and other close contacts.

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Sioux Falls has quickly become the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the state. South Dakota added 120 newly confirmed cases since Monday, all but one of the cases in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties.

More than four in five cases in the state are in those two counties, and the bulk of those are from the Smithfield workforce, a surge in cases TenHaken has called "nerve-wracking."

Noem has issued a stay-home order in Minnehaha or Lincoln counties for only those older than 65, with chronic medical conditions or suppressed immune systems. TenHaken had said he hoped his request would be seen as the next step for the governor's direction.

Sioux Falls-based health system Avera Health backed his request for a shelter-at-home order, TenHaken said. Avera has the contract for dealing with the Smithfield workers diagnosed with having the coronavirus.

"We're unified in our command center that we need to do this now," he said Monday.

The Smithfield plant is the third largest coronavirus hotspot in the country, after the U.S.S. Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Guam and the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the New York Times reported this weekend .

'Targeted, intense approach'

Noem on Tuesday said a stay-at-home order for the two counties was not "appropriate considering the data, the facts and the science that we have."

She defended what she called the state's "targeted, intense approach" to the growing number of Smithfield cases and said a stay-home order would not have stopped the spread of the virus at the plant because it is designated by the federal government as an essential business and would not have closed.

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The state is bracing for "shocking" sales tax and video lottery revenue, she said, as the spread of the coronavirus has slammed the state's economy.

TenHaken had also asked the governor for an isolation center in Sioux Falls, potentially housed the city events center, to hold those diagnosed with the illness. Noem said she was also rejecting that request, saying she believes it best for those infected with COVID-19 to isolate at home or a hotel room.

The mayor's office didn't respond to the governor's rejection of TenHaken's requests by deadline Tuesday.

The Sioux Falls City Council is set to consider a stay-home order for the city at its meeting on Wednesday. The soonest such an order could go into effect is after a City Council vote next Tuesday, TenHaken said.

A significant number of South Dakotans diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, are newly recovered. The state added 54 recoveries, so just more than one in four of those diagnosed with the virus have recovered.

However, the bulk of the state's new cases were discovered recently. South Dakota's case total has tripled in the last week as testing revealed the extent of the coronavirus' spread in the Smithfield plant.

The virus has sent 45 South Dakotans to the hospital and killed six.

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Related Topics: HEALTHNEWSMDALL-ACCESS
Jeremy Fugleberg is an editor who manages coverage of health (NewsMD), history and true crime (The Vault) for Forum News Service, the regional wire service of Forum Communications Co, and is a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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