South Dakota's COVID-19 hotbed, Huron reveals anxiety and resolve

As South Dakota grappled with the reality that COVID-19 is spreading throughout the state, the city of Huron emerged as the state’s early hotbed of the pandemic, prompting fear and a resolve to preserve scarce medical resources.

Huron, known for its meat-packing plant and as the site of the state fair, could not feel more distant from early epicenters of COVID-19 elsewhere in the United States, such as New York City or Seattle. But as Gov. Kristi Noem warns that up to 30% of people in the state could become infected, the community has revealed what many are about to face — anxiety prompted by an invisible foe and the makeshift response required to endure the pandemic.

Huron was one of the first places in South Dakota with community spread — when it’s unclear how an infected person contracted the virus. Beadle County, which includes Huron, led the state in the number of cases until Wednesday when officials announced the more populous Minnehaha County and Beadle County both had 13.

Huron residents fear there could be many more.

The state is rationing its testing supplies to those at the highest risk of complications or spreading it to others.

On March 10, state health officials announced South Dakota’s first case, in Beadle County. Things went quiet for over a week before the number jumped to 4 on March 20; and then to 10, 12 13.

“You just don’t understand how fast it can kindle,” said Denis Drake, a county commissioner who is leading the response.

County and town officials decided during an emergency meeting on Sunday that Beadle would become the first county in the state to close bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses.

“That Sunday, when that number hit ... it was a wake-up call,” said Jen Bragg, who runs the local United Way.

A sense of anxiety has settled over the community. Many stay inside, penned up with children home from school and unspent nervous energy. Rumors spread that the infection started in the Karen community, many of whom work at the meat-packing plant. Mayor Paul Aylward refuted that, saying only white people have tested positive.

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Noem on Wednesday focused her daily update on telling people to pause and persevere. She said state employees have been working long hours, with one even passing out from dehydration during a meeting this week. The number of cases in the state rose Wednesday from 30 to 41 a day earlier, including one death on March 10.

Also Wednesday, Monument Health in Rapid City announced that a health care worker with COVID-19 came into contact with an estimated 100 patients in its cancer care facility. The worker is now being treated at Monument Health’s facilities. The woman also came into contact with 10 other health care workers and two physicians. Most of the patients were in an ambulatory area.

When the family of state legislator Bob Glanzer, a Republican from Huron, announced he had been airlifted to a hospital in Sioux Falls to be treated for COVID-19, many took heed.

Michelle Gascoigne, 61, said some of her Facebook friends had been spreading rumors that it was all an overblown hoax pushed by Democrats. She said she hasn’t seen posts like that since Glanzer was hospitalized.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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Many residents worry that Huron Regional Medical Center, the only hospital for miles, could be overrun if infections spread. The hospital has just 25 beds and 3 spots to give intensive care to COVID-19 patients. It has 12 respirators, but only enough staff to run three at a time. They are trying to figure out ways to run more.

In the emergency, the community has taken a stopgap approach.

A group formed to sew cloth masks that can be placed over the N95 masks to prolong their usefulness. A chiropractic clinic organized testing for people with COVID-19 symptoms away from the hospital. And the emergency response team is considering using buildings at the state fairgrounds for an overflow of COVID-19 patients.

The governor has warned that the state will continue to see an increase in infections until May or June. If Noem’s projections hold, well over 30,000 people in the state may need to be hospitalized.

State health officials are assessing the surge capacity of the state’s hospitals.

The South Dakota Legislature will meet via teleconference on Monday for the final scheduled day of this year’s legislative session. They may be considering adjustments to the state budget or emergency action in light of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. John Thune decided to return home to South Dakota after waking up Wednesday feeling ill. After consulting with his physician in Sioux Falls, he was advised that no further immediate action was needed but to continue self-monitoring his condition, according to a statement issued by Thune’s office.


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