South Dakota gripped by pandemic amid Kristi Noem's no-mask approach

State has alarming Covid positivity rate of almost 60% and governor’s hands-off policy is having dire consequences

Isolating herself from family after a Covid-19 diagnosis on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, grandmother Cheryl Angel had few options for safe shelter and ended up far afield traipsing from one lonely hotel room to another.

“Our tribe didn’t have anything set up, and if it weren’t for my relatives, I would have died in there,” she said.

Relatives made two-hour drives to leave breakfast and supper outside her impromptu isolation ward, while inside she followed instructions to use a steroid inhaler four times a day and learned to inject herself with an epinephrine medication when she felt faint.

She vowed that if she survived the deadly disease, she would do all she could to help others receive better treatment, as South Dakota fell further into the grip of the coronavirus pandemic.

By the time her two sons caught coronavirus this fall, Angel had recovered and become involved in a grassroots community encampment taking care of homeless fellow Native Americans on Sioux land on the outskirts of Rapid City, in the west of the state

Physician Nancy Babbitt, who agreed to supervise training for coronavirus testing at the settlement, Camp Mniluzahan, lamented the heightened risks such vulnerable residents are facing amid state governor Kristi Noem’s determinedly hands-off pandemic policy – including being one of a minority of states with no statewide mask requirements to curb infection.

“My experience dealing with Covid-19 in South Dakota is one of failed leadership. Our governor has made it clear it’s up to the people, so we have to come up with creative ideas to help stop the spread,” Babbitt said.

The threat posed by the novel coronavirus to particularly vulnerable populations has cast a shadow over the daily reality, already filled with difficulties, of Sioux tribe members in South Dakota
The threat posed by the novel coronavirus to particularly vulnerable populations has cast a shadow over the daily reality, already filled with difficulties, of Sioux tribe members in South Dakota. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

She added that for vulnerable populations, whether in South Dakota or anywhere: “Safe quarantine is a luxury.”

Nevertheless, Noem encouraged crowds to South Dakota’s beautiful Black Hills to see Donald Trump when the president attended a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore in July, and to attend the Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, and scoffed at science-driven precautions.

Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse in Woonsocket, sees the fall-out from this kind of denial.

“As I’m on my couch with my dog, I can’t help but think of the Covid patients … the ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real,” she tweeted.

She described patients shouting “that president-elect Joe Biden was ‘going to ruin the USA’. All while gasping for breath”.

“They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’, because they don’t have Covid.” she said, referring to the personal protective equipment front line healthcare workers wear.

“They stop yelling at you when they get intubated,” she added.

I have a night off from the hospital. As I’m on my couch with my dog I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is

— Jodi Doering (@JodiDoering) November 15, 2020

Her tweets have attracted some backlash, including from healthcare workers who said they had not experienced such things.

After the motorcycle rally, Noem further refused to cancel the South Dakota state fair in September, as she promoted tourism in the state and enthusiastically embraced presidential exhortations to states to “open up” for business.

Johne Riley shows off his chest painted with a portrait of Donald Trump during the 80th annual Sturgis motorcycle rally on 7 August 2020 in Sturgis, South Dakota, which usually attracts around 500,000 people.
Johne Riley shows off his chest painted with a portrait of Donald Trump during the 80th annual Sturgis motorcycle rally on 7 August 2020 in Sturgis, South Dakota, which usually attracts around 500,000 people. Photograph: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

South Dakota has an alarming positivity rate of almost 60% – nearly six out of 10 people who take a Covid test are infected – second only in the US to neighboring Wyoming.

More than 66,000 South Dakotans have contracted the disease and at least 644 have died, a number likely to rise as hospitals reach breaking point.

The South Dakota Medical Association has issued a statement in support of a mask mandate. The state’s largest city of Sioux Falls put one into effect, and the second largest, Rapid City, is awaiting a final council vote.

With USA Today newspaper headlines reporting earlier this month that South and North Dakota are in a situation “as bad as it gets anywhere in the world for Covid-19”, Noem held her first pandemic media availability in three months, firing back: “That is absolutely false” and citing different data sources.

The Royal C Johnson Veterans Memorial Hospital, part of the Sioux Falls VA health care system.
The Royal C Johnson Veterans Memorial Hospital, part of the Sioux Falls VA health care system. Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters

The laissez faire approach all but ordains that the most vulnerable South Dakotans, who may live in remote towns scattered across the state’s nine tribal reservations, in small rural enclaves or the cities, will have to figure out their own ways of coping.

Those with low-income, lacking transportation and experiencing pre-existing health conditions all too easily find themselves in life-or-death situations.

When tribal governments set up Covid-19 checkpoints early in 2020 on highways connecting reservation jurisdictions with state lands, to curb infections, Noem threatened their sovereignty with legal action, seeking Trump’s back-up.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, arguing the checkpoints were needed because reservations lack medical facilities and equipment to handle a large outbreak, especially stemming from lax official protocols, sued Trump for colluding with Noem to undermine tribal authority.

When Angel, who is Sicangu Lakota, contracted Covid-19, she wouldn’t stay at her rustic Rosebud home because two household members had pre-existing health conditions.

Donald Trump on a screen as he speaks during an event at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, on 3 July 2020.
Donald Trump on a screen as he speaks during an event at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, on 3 July 2020. Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“Access to running water and private bathroom facilities is necessary to recover and to contain Covid-19,” she told the Guardian.

“The tribe didn’t have a safe or adequate quarantine area able to provide Covid-19 support” so, she added “I left the reservation.”

She alternated hotels as bookings permitted.

“At one point, I was so weak I could barely walk,” she said.

She added: “I wouldn’t have survived on the reservation. Like my son, I probably would have been flown out. And who knows of I’d have survived that.”

Her younger son drove his older brother to the Rosebud emergency room just in time for a life-saving flight to a Sioux Falls hospital.

While in isolation, she said: “My prayer was that, if I ever survive this, I’m not going to let anybody else be alone in a hotel room.”

Later, tending to residents’ needs at Camp Mniluzahan, Angel reflected: “This is what I envisioned when I was sick, alone, near death and couldn’t breathe.”

Babbitt added: “When I saw what was happening at the camp, it filled my heart – to see people making a difference.”

  • This article was amended on 25 November 2020 to reflect South Dakota being in a minority of states with no mask mandate, not the only one.

Talli Nauman in Rapid City, South Dakota

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kristi Noem rigidly follows Trump strategy of denial as Covid ravages South Dakota
Republican governor clings to the president despite his defeat and claims ‘we’re doing really good’ with state’s positivity rate at 60%

Ed Pilkington

19, Nov, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
South Dakota governor threatens to sue over Sioux's coronavirus roadblocks
Two Native American tribes are restricting entry to their territory to prevent a major outbreak but Republican Kristi Noem objects

Nina Lakhani

14, May, 2020 @10:30 AM

Article image
South Dakota pork plant closes after over 200 workers contract Covid-19
About 240 employees at the plant contracted the virus, making up over half of the state’s positive cases

Lauren Aratani

13, Apr, 2020 @5:39 PM

Article image
Thousands of bikers heading to South Dakota rally to be blocked at tribal land checkpoints
Clampdown comes as fears mount that mask-free bikers headed to large gathering could spread coronavirus to tribal groups

Edward Helmore

08, Aug, 2020 @4:13 PM

Article image
Nine people killed in South Dakota plane crash
Death toll includes two children and area of crash was under a winter storm warning

Guardian staff and agencies

01, Dec, 2019 @9:20 PM

Article image
South Dakota governor uses private funds to send troops to Mexico border
• Republican Kristi Noem deploys national guard to Texas, claiming move is in response to ‘crimes’ committed by migrants

Sarah Betancourt

30, Jun, 2021 @4:16 PM

South Dakota outlaws abortion
The US state of South Dakota has signed into law a near-total ban on abortion in a move the governor called a "direct frontal assault" on the supreme court decision 33 years ago to legalise it.

Robert Booth and agencies

07, Mar, 2006 @5:17 PM

Abortion rights advocates campaign against South Dakota ballot measure

Abortion rights supporters today launched a campaign to defeat a proposed ban on the procedure in the state of South Dakota, citing potentially sweeping ramifications for US healthcare policy

Elana Schor in Washington

12, Aug, 2008 @4:44 PM

Article image
Trump heads to Mount Rushmore for divisive fireworks celebration
President plans to decry ‘leftwing mob’ in event raising concerns over wildfire risk, respect for tribal land and Covid-19 dangers

Joanna Walters in New York and agency

03, Jul, 2020 @9:55 PM

Article image
'I believe in our freedoms': the governor who resists lockdown and stresses American liberty
South Dakota’s Kristi Noem refuses to impose a stay-at-home order, citing a deeply held ideology – one supported by many in the midwest

Chris McGreal

21, Apr, 2020 @4:10 PM