Both North and South Dakota face record high numbers of cases, but neither governor will implement a statewide mask mandate.
In states with some of the worst COVID-19 numbers in the country, GOP governors are facing criticism for not implementing enough safety measures to curb the spread.
North Dakota, where Gov. Doug Burgum has shied away from implementing a statewide mask mandate, has reported the most COVID-19 cases in the country over the last seven days, with 7,529 per 100,000 residents, according to the New York Times. And in South Dakota, where Gov. Kristi Noem continues to resist shelter-in-place or similar mask orders, the state has recorded the nation's second-highest number of cases, 6,635 per 100,000 residents.
Those numbers are troubling to their neighbors.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday implored the two governors to implement more public health guidelines, calling superspreader events like the massive motorcycle rally in South Dakota back in August "absolutely unnecessary."
"I want to be clear: I'm not blaming other governors or blaming others states. I am saying, they have made choices that have increased spread to a certain degree," Walz said at a news conference in St. Paul on Tuesday. "When people go over there, they are going to get infected and bring it back home."
"And this one’s a little bit personal because the governor of South Dakota has taken to traveling to other states and criticizing others — now at a time when that state’s hospital capacity is overwhelmed," he added.
Late last month, a group of South Dakotan doctors, nurses, hospitals, school administrators, and businesses also came together to urge the public to wear masks, social distance, and handwash, an effort that runs counter to Noem's lack of action.
"Masking is a simple act that each one of us can participate in and it can save lives. If you mask, that life could be your mother, father, your friend, or even your own," said ," said South Dakota State Medical Association president Dr. Benjamin Aaker, according to the Associated Press.
A spokesperson from Noem's office told the AP that the governor favors a "nuanced" approach to masks and doesn't oppose all mask-wearing, but "has not encouraged people to wear face coverings in public, as recommended by the CDC," according to the outlet.
Noem, who often appears in public maskless, has also discouraged masks in schools.
"We have triple the amount of testing that we are doing in the state of South Dakota, which is why we're seeing elevated positive cases," Noem said.
And just this summer, Noem allowed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to move forward as planned, despite the risks. A recent study called it a "superspreading event" that likely led to $12 billion in public health costs.
Noem's office has continued to defend the South Dakota governor's coronavirus response, even amid the surge in cases and rising criticism.
"Governor Noem has provided her people with all of the science, facts, and data, and then trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved-ones," he told the Minnesota Star Tribune on Wednesday. "She will be continuing that approach."
In North Dakota, Burgum's supporters similarly wish the governor would implement stricter guidelines to curb the rise in cases, including requiring masks and limiting social gatherings.
Burgum has urged the public to wear face coverings in the past, and has even spoken out against "mask-shaming," telling residents at a press conference back in May, "If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support, they might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life, who currently have COVID, and they're fighting."
But Burgum has notably stopped short of issuing a statewide mask mandate, having said that it "is not a magic bullet to make this virus go away."
He has also come under fire for rolling back safety measures against expert advice.
Dr. Paul Mariani, a top health officer appointed by Burgum, resigned on Sept. 25, a day after the North Dakota governor rescinded a new order enforcing a quarantine mandate for those in close contact with someone infected with the virus. Two other experts have also left that position since May, according to the AP.
"Our goal is compliance," Burgum said at the time, insisting he would simply encourage communities to follow quarantine guidelines. "In order to get compliance, we have to get public support."
While Burgum and Noem hedge, cases of COVID-19 in the two states are soaring.
Hospitals in North Dakota are at 100% capacity, and health care workers are so direly needed that the state will now allow infected health care workers who aren't showing symptoms to work in facilities treating COVID-19, Burgum announced Monday. To mitigate staff shortages and amid mounting pressure, he was forced to take the extraordinary step to amend a previous order.
And in South Dakota, COVID-19 cases hit a new record high this week, with 2,020 new cases in a single day.
"...We are entering into the flu season, and that's our biggest concern. And we've been exhorting all our communities to get the flu shot. But the real risk here is at the rate of roughly 23% or so statewide of positive rates, what I can conclude and we all can conclude epidemiologically, the spread is uncontrolled," said Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Rapid City Hospital, in an interview with NPR on Wednesday.
He continued, "There's no mitigation or suppression ... which means coming into November, December, and January, this is sad to say, but we will see an increase in cases and increase in hospitalizations. Our biggest worry from a hospital standpoint is to maintain capacity, be able to take care of critically ill folks that need ICU level of care and will quickly run out of that if these numbers continue. And that seems to be the direction based on this high positivity rate."
GOP-run states across the country, where Republican leaders have been slow to implement safety measures, have experienced similar spikes in cases — and like North and South Dakota, they, too, have refused to act in spite of the numbers.
In Texas, where more than 1 million people are infected, several universities are still planning to have in-person college graduation ceremonies in the fall. It's a move that the Texas Faculty Association has opposed, calling on Gov. Gregg Abbott to postpone the events or hold virtual ones. Abbott has not yet responded publicly to those requests.
"The last thing we need are more large public gatherings. Universities should set the example for health and safety," association president Pat Heintzelman told Reform Austin.
In Florida, meanwhile, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis hired Kyle Lamb, an anti-mask sports blogger, to do COVID-19 data analysis for the state, which saw rising cases and a more than 20% spike in hospitalizations this past week alone.
"I am hyperventilating into my mask at the thought of this person being part of @GovRonDeSantis COVID data analysis team," Emilio M. Bruna, a University of Florida professor, tweeted Tuesday.
At the time of publication, the United States has surpassed a record 10.4 million cases and 241,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
In spite of the cresting pandemic, national leadership as well has continued to downplay the coronavirus. Instead of fighting COVID-19, for example, Donald Trump has appeared solely focused on peddling his false claims of election fraud.
Likewise, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, has not had much on his public schedule to tackle the surge in cases. He's also reportedly skipping task force calls, but somehow made time to challenge the results of the presidential election.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.