South Dakota's herd immunity plan is looking dubious thus far... or is it?

There’s a lot of public pressure being put on South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem this week. She’s one of only five governors in the country to not issue a mandatory shutdown, lockdown or quarantine order. Until quite recently, that didn’t seem to be much of an issue, but in the past couple of weeks, the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus has begun to exhibit that steep curve that we’ve come to know all too well in New York City and New Orleans. The state’s Medical Association has already issued a public statement calling on the Governor to shut the state down. But we should probably take a more careful look at the numbers coming out of the Mount Rushmore State before rushing to judgment. (NY Post)

South Dakota’s coronavirus cases have begun to soar after its governor steadfastly refused to mandate a quarantine.

The number of confirmed cases in the state has risen from 129 to 988 since April 1 — when Gov. Kristi Noem criticized the “draconian measures” of social distancing to stop the spread of the virus in her state.

Noem had criticized the quarantine idea as “herd mentality, not leadership” during a news conference, adding “South Dakota is not New York.”

As of yesterday, there were 988 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with a total of six deaths. Obviously, every death is tragic and nearly a thousand cases is nothing to sneeze at (pardon the pun), even in a state with a population of roughly 884,000 people. But still, that’s really less than one-tenth of one percent of the population.

Even more importantly, nearly one-third of the total number of cases in South Dakota all came from a single place. That would be the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls. Going down the list of counties in South Dakota, we see that of the 988 confirmed cases identified so far, 768 of them are in Minnehaha County, where Sioux Falls is located. That’s also the location of one third (2) of the deaths thus far.

The next highest concentration of confirmed cases is in Lincoln County where there are 55 cases. There are four more counties with between 13 and 22 cases. Beyond that, 34 more counties have between 1 and 9 cases, with the remaining 26 counties having zero cases.

Granted, Sioux Falls accounts for twenty percent of the state’s population and no doubt has a higher human density rating than nearly any other part of South Dakota. But that only feeds into the idea that they have their coronavirus issue contained to a relatively small area. Should the Governor really be shutting down her entire state and disrupting the lives of the other 700,000 South Dakotans?

I suppose I could understand if Governor Noem decided to issue a lockdown order and some social distancing protocols just for Sioux City and its surrounding suburbs. But the point that Governor is making is worth considering. When asked why she still hadn’t taken any drastic actions, she said, “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety. They are the ones that are entrusted with expansive freedoms.”

In other words, she’s treating them like adults. Perhaps instead of an executive order, she could simply issue a clear, well-defined set of guidelines for people to follow, taking the responsibility to do so upon themselves. Nearly any employer can put the same sets of precautions in place that most grocery stores are using these days. Have workers enter the building one at a time, separate desks and works stations as much as possible, increase sanitization procedures and have everyone keep their distance.

What I just described is nearly identical to the plans currently unfolding at the Smithfield Foods plant. They plan on reopening, but first, they are scrubbing the entire place down and installing plexiglass shield around the employees’ workstations and controlling the flow of workers in, out and through the plant. In addition, they’ve already tested everyone there. If they can resume operations without a second surge in cases, couldn’t that be done virtually anywhere?

Before we declare South Dakota’s decisions during the pandemic a failure, we should take a long, hard look at the data and see if there isn’t anything to be learned here. What they are doing could also serve as a partial model for opening up the rest of the country, assuming they are still keeping these numbers under control a few weeks from now.