Exclusive — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Beating Coronavirus Without Lockdown: ‘We’re Much Better on Offense’
Reported by MATTHEW BOYLE | Washington, D.C.
Noem said that despite earlier projections of a surge on the hospitals in South Dakota and nationwide, “no, we haven’t” seen such a surge. In fact, South Dakota has—again, without a lockdown—cut that number down by 75 percent of the projections, with much less than a hundred people in the hospital.
According to the state’s Department of Health website, there have been 1,858 cases of coronavirus in South Dakota—937 people have recovered. There have been only 9 deaths, and there are 62 people currently hospitalized. In total, only 111 people were ever hospitalized for coronavirus in South Dakota—far less than ever was expected.
“I think we’ve got maybe 60 people in the hospital right now,” Noem said in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. “We have 2,500 beds set aside for COVID-19 patients, but we only have 63 in. We probably, from all of our projections and studying the science behind the virus, we won’t peak until the middle of June. But we already have done much better than what we had thought would have been hitting our state already.”
“We already have cut our peak projections by 75 percent just putting in place the recommendations I asked people to do, staying at home and they’ve practiced social distancing,” she explained. “They’ve washed their hands and they stayed home if they weren’t feeling well and called their doctors. Just by doing that, we’ve cut the hospitalization rates by 75 percent. So, I’ve just been super proud of what the people in South Dakota have done—they recognized that I wasn’t going to dictate to them, that I valued their freedoms and liberties and that I was going to let them take action on behalf of their families and communities.”
When asked how she made her decision to not issue a closure of businesses in South Dakota and to not issue a statewide stay-at-home order like many other governors did when the crisis was beginning, Noem told Breitbart News that she was focused on providing the best and most scientific response to the coronavirus crisis.
“I looked at our state and our people here and knew they would take on the personal responsibility that would be necessary to protect their families and their communities,” Noem said. “I had a real honest conversation with them and told them what we were facing and that I needed them to make some decisions to follow CDC guidelines and that by doing that we could look at how this virus would impact our state and peak hospitalization rates going forward and do it together.”
“I’m not one who believes in a one-size-fits-all approach, and even in South Dakota I’ve got pretty diverse communities,” she noted. “I’ve got some that are pretty sparse with not many people and then I’ve got some that are big cities as well. So I wanted to leave some flexibility there for local folks to make decisions but also recognizing that when it comes down to it that these guys had to take on the personal responsibility that is necessary to really go after this virus.”
Noem added that when it came to her decision against issuing a lockdown, she factored in her oath to defend the state’s Constitution that she took when she was sworn in as governor and her oath to defend the U.S. Constitution that she took when she was previously sworn in when she was in the U.S. Congress. She was concerned for the civil liberties and freedoms of the people of her state and did not think the facts on the ground warranted a lockdown—something that, again, the statistics have proven to be true.
“It was a decision that I made. The facts on the ground here did not support shelter-in-place,” she said. “We just didn’t have the spread. For me personally, I took an oath to uphold our state Constitution. I took an oath when I was in Congress to uphold the United States Constitution. So I believe in people’s freedoms and liberties and I always balance that with every decision that I make as governor. I get overly concerned with leaders who take too much power in a time of crisis because I think that’s how we directly lose our country someday by leaders overstepping their proper role.”
“So I was balancing all of that perspective and my value system and principles with what I was seeing here in South Dakota and never believed it was appropriate for us to take that kind of action,” Noem explained. “I trust my people. I know that if business owners here are given an opportunity to be innovative, they will protect their customers. They will take actions and change business models to make sure their employees are safe and that they can practice social distancing while still serving their customers. I knew I had to give them an opportunity to survive.”
“What I was going to ask them to do was not going to be something they would have to do just for a week or two,” she explained. “I knew they would have to do it for months, and I didn’t know how they would survive if I shut them down, and for me, it’s always been about whatever I ask you to do today you have to sustain, and I knew that doing that kind of an action was not sustainable. People would not be able to shelter in their homes for six weeks on end, and businesses would not be able to survive and have an economy to be able to put food on the table for folks.”
“All of that was part of my decision-making process, and I decided as well—I knew it was unconventional and it was something that would not be widely embraced across the country–but I knew I had to communicate it and I knew I had to make myself available to South Dakota and tell them why I was making these decisions and make sure we were having real palms-up honest conversations, and I think by and large they’re seeing the wisdom in the action and decisions we’ve made, and they’re grateful for it, but we have a long ways to go though,” Noem said. “We’ve got, that’s the thing, a lot of people want to be done with this now, and I have to keep reminding people we still have not even hit our peak—our numbers are going to continue to get worse, and that reality is something that we’re going to have to deal with for quite some time here.”
Just because there is no stay-at-home order or statewide mandated closure of businesses does not mean South Dakota is just waiting and doing nothing to fight the coronavirus. Noem has undertaken a number of initiatives in South Dakota, including alongside the state’s northern neighbor, North Dakota, the introduction of a cell phone application that helps state health officials with contact tracing of those who test positive for the virus—something she said has been very effective in helping control the spread of the disease.
“The app is called CARE19 and it’s downloadable on both android and iPhones, but what it does is so much of the time of individuals—when somebody tests positive for COVID-19 our Department of Health immediately calls them, asks them to isolate, and then follows up with them and then also does extensive interviews with them to find out about where they had been the previous three or four or five days, where they had been, where they had stopped, so we can identify other individuals that may have been exposed to the virus to let them know and ask them to isolate and slow down the spread,” Noem said. “This app will do all of that in seconds. So, it’s completely voluntary. People can download it on their phone, then turn on location services and then forget about it. Then if they do test positive a week or two weeks down the road they can decide if they want to share that information with us or not and then that will tell us everything about where they were and people that may have been exposed to the virus so they don’t have to try to remember.”
“It literally takes hours of interviews we would have with an individual down to getting all of that same information and having it be much more accurate in seconds,” she explained. “It helps us be much more aggressive in slowing and isolating the spread. The average person we have to contact—if somebody tests positive, we have to call eight or nine people on average that they may have come in contact with and let them know. So even if we only have a hundred cases a day, that’s 800 to 900 phone calls we have to be making to them. Then everybody who tests positive and everybody who has been exposed we call them back the next day and then the next day and so on to make sure they’re still doing okay and that they’re still isolating and all that. By being able to cut down that amount of time it takes to know who may have been exposed, boy it just saves us hundreds of hours and is really helpful. We’re the only—I think North Dakota started it first, I think we started it the next morning, and I think we’re the only two states that are using that kind of technology.”
South Dakota has also, at Noem’s direction, formally launched a statewide, fully-funded, and all-encompassing trial to study the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus. There have been some studies that suggest the drug is promising as a potential treatment, and President Donald Trump has touted it as a hopeful possibility, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized its usage on a compassionate care basis if a doctor decides a patient should use it. But no formal studies yet exist to demonstrate the effectiveness of the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19, so Noem stepped up and rallied all of the state’s major healthcare systems to lead a statewide test of the drug.
“What’s happening here in South Dakota is really unprecedented,” Noem said. “There has never been anything like this that has happened before. There is the state government partnering with all of our major health systems to run a statewide, state-backed-and-funded clinical trial. We have Sanford Health in our state that does a lot of research, and they’re running many other clinical trials, and they came to the table and said they would lead it, and I said the state would support it and help secure the drugs with the White House’s help, the hydroxychloroquine and whatever else we would need, and then the other two health systems, Avera and Monument, were excited to partner as well. So we will literally have a clinical trial now where every person in the state will be allowed to participate in.”
“So it’s the first statewide one. I think we’re the only state where it would have been possible to get all of the healthcare systems to agree to participate in,” she continued. “It really is unprecedented as well to get them all to step up and agree to participate, and then we can include up to 100,000 people so it is much larger than a typical clinical trial would be.”
“Sometimes the accuracy of a clinical trial is in question when it’s a super small sample and you don’t get enough people to participate,” Noem explained. “By this, including this many people getting access to the drug and seeing what the results would be, not only allows us to meet the current need but also allows us to get the background data and research that we can use to be on offense against this virus into the future.”
“So, I think this is kind of what South Dakota does best—we’re much better on offense than we are just sitting back and playing defense, and this is one way where I said let’s not just sit back and access the drug and let people use it that are in ICUs and in healthcare systems that need it to save their lives,” she said. “But let’s use it as an opportunity to build out our capacity for doing research so that in the long run we’re contributing to addressing COVID-19 for years into the future.”
South Dakota is still, Noem added, planning to have fireworks over Mount Rushmore this year—a promise President Trump made when signing a phase one trade deal with China earlier this year.
“They are—we’ll decide what it looks like but there will be fireworks over Mount Rushmore this year. We’re still moving ahead,” Noem said.