Dakotas lead US in virus growth, both rejecting mask rules

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SIOUX FALLS, SD – Coronavirus infections in the Dakotas are growing faster than anywhere else in the country, fueling heated debates over masks and personal freedom after months in which both states avoided the worst of the pandemic . The mask dispute raged this week in Brookings, South Dakota, as city council considered requiring face masks in businesses. The city was forced to move its meeting to a local arena to meet intense interest, with many citizens speaking out against it, before the mask requirement finally passed.

Amid the brute force of the pandemic, health experts warn infections must be contained before healthcare systems are overwhelmed. North Dakota and South Dakota lead the country in the number of new cases per capita over the past two weeks, ranking first and second, respectively, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

South Dakota also posted some of the nation’s highest positivity rates for COVID-19 tests last week – over 17% – an indication that there are more infections than the tests detect.

The infections were spurred by the reopening of schools and universities and by mass rallies like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew hundreds of thousands of people from across the country.

“It’s no surprise that South Dakota has one of the highest (COVID-19) reproduction rates in the country,” Brookings City Council member Nick Wendell said, commenting on the many people who renounce masks in public.

Republican governors in both states have avoided mask requirements, tapping into a spirit of independence tailored to endure the winters and storms of the Great Plains.

The Dakotas weren’t always a hot spot. For months, states seemed to avoid the worst of the pandemic, watching from afar as it raged in major cities. But skyrocketing infection rates have spread across the country, from the East Coast to the Sun Belt and now into the Midwest, where states like Iowa and Kansas are also facing power surges.

When the number of cases remained low in the spring and early summer, people grew tired of constantly taking precautions, said Dr. Benjamin Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association. .

“People tend to get complacent,” he said. “Then they start to relax the things they were doing right, and that’s where the increase in cases starts to increase. ”

Health officials point out that the increase in COVID-19 cases is with younger groups who are not hospitalized at high rates. But the infections have not been contained on college campuses.

“College students work in places where vulnerable people live, like nursing homes,” said Dr. Joel Walz, health officer for the City and County of Grand Forks, North Dakota. “Some of them are nursing students doing internships where they go to see people who are really at risk. I’m worried about this. ”

Over 1,000 students from the four largest state universities (University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University, and University of South Dakota ) left the campus in quarantine after being exposed to the virus, according to data released by schools. . The Sturgis rally also spread infections across the region, with health officials from 12 states reporting more than 300 cases among people who attended the event.

But requiring masks has been controversial. In Brookings, opponents said they believed the viral threat was not as severe as described and that a warrant was a violation of civil liberties.

“There are a lot of things that we have in life that we have to deal with that cause death,” business owner Teresa Haldeman told the board. “We live in America and we have certain inalienable rights. ”

Although Brookings passed its ban, another hot spot – Morton County in North Dakota, just west of the capital Bismarck – strongly rejected the mask requirement after citizens spoke out against her. Brookings may be the only municipality to have such an order in the Dakotas outside of Native American reservations, which have generally been more vigilant in adopting coronavirus precautions. Native Americans have died disproportionately from COVID-19, accounting for 24% of deaths statewide.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem have resisted mask demands. Burgum encourages personal choice but has tried to encourage masks with a social media campaign. Noem has discouraged mask requirements, saying she doubts a broad consensus in the medical community that they help prevent infections.

During a press briefing, Burgum displayed a slide showing active cases in neighboring Minnesota reaching record levels since the implementation of a mask warrant on July 25.

“At the end of the day, it’s about individual decisions, not what the government does,” he said.

Noem, who has yet to appear at a public event with a mask, has earned a reputation as a staunch curator when she defied calls at the start of the pandemic for lockdown orders.

But the two governors face increasing pressure to step up their approach.

Dr Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told MSNBC he finds these numbers “disturbing”, especially as the weather of fall arrives and Americans begin to spend more than time inside.

“You don’t want to start with such a high baseline already,” Fauci said.

Neither governor seems ready to cede any ground.

“We will not change this approach,” Noem spokesman Ian Fury said Thursday, citing a low hospitalization rate and the fact that only 3% of intensive care beds are occupied by COVID patients.

Doctors in both states warn their health systems remain vulnerable. Small hospitals in rural areas depend on only a handful of large hospitals to handle a large influx of patients or complex procedures, said Dr. Misty Anderson, president of the North Dakota Medical Association.

Aaker, the chairman of the South Dakota Doctors Group, said medical practices have seen patients delay routine care during the pandemic, meaning doctors may soon see an increase in patients needing more attention. serious.

“Now we are adding a potential increase in coronavirus cases,” he said. “They are afraid of being overwhelmed. ”

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Kolpack reported from Fargo, North Dakota.

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