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Omicron may be on the decline, but this South Dakota hospital is still feeling its peak

By Gary Tuchman and Theresa Waldrop, CNN

Omicron may be declining across much of the United States, but the Monument Health hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, is still running an expanded intensive care unit, in the midst of a Covid-19 surge fueled by low vaccination rates and a lack of coronavirus restrictions.

“We are seeing a rise in the range of 60% in cases here in hospitalizations at Monument Health,” said Dr. Shankar Kurra, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs. “And that is worrying.”

“This is a trend that is a warning to us; a dire warning that we could be at capacities we never imagined,” he said.

Rapid City is the seat of Pennington County, which has the highest number of active cases in the state. With a population of about 114,000, the county had 3,744 active Covid-19 cases Tuesday, and almost 31% of weekly tests reported were positive for the virus, according to the state’s database.

Nationwide, the situation looks different: Cases are 42% lower on average than a week earlier, according to Johns Hopkins University data — about a third of the peak three weeks ago. Hospitalizations are down 20% from last week.

In light of these declining numbers, some states have begun to do away with mask mandates — at least in schools — by the end of March.

South Dakota doesn’t have any mask rules. Gov. Kristi Noem has refused to implement such mandates, or other restrictions, like limiting gatherings and events, leaving residents to make any safety decisions for themselves.

“Governor Noem has provided her people with up-to-date science, facts, and data and then trusted them to exercise personal responsibility to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones,” her communications director told CNN.

The lack of basic safety restrictions and Pennington County’s low vaccination rate are frustrating, staff at Monument said. Fewer than 26,000 people in a county of about 114,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to the state’s database.

On a recent day at Monument, none of the intensive care unit patients with Covid-19 was vaccinated.

Seeing unvaccinated patients is “stressful,” George Sazama, the hospital’s adult intensive care unit director, told CNN. “That’s what makes it sad,” he added. “It’s like, you didn’t have to be here.”

Jerry Morgan, 87, is among the Covid-19 patients at Monument, but he’s avoided the intensive care unit and seems to be on the mend. He’s also fully vaccinated and had a booster dose.

“I’m almost positive that if I hadn’t had those, I’d probably be gone,” said Morgan. His brother was unvaccinated and died due to the disease, he told CNN.

South Dakota’s Covid-19 numbers are a reflection of the fact that the pandemic has not been taken seriously by residents, said Abbey Ulrich, 28, a clinical resource nurse at Monument.

And it only adds to the frustration when friends and loved ones of health workers refuse to get vaccinated.

“I’m very scared for what Covid will do to them,” Ulrich said. “I’ve had friends that got Covid that were not vaccinated, and I was very nervous.” Some were fine, but others “had very serious health conditions from it,” she said.

Health care workers at Monument, like those around the country, have been dealing with an influx of Covid-19 patients for months, and there has been no relief, chief medical officer Kurra said.

“We are more than full and we are managing that for a sustained period of time, and that is the stress I’m talking about..for every single caregiver,” he said.

Ulrich echoed the same: Monument staff are “all very burnt out.”

“We have been for over a year,” the 28-year-old added. “We’ve been taking care of (sicker) patients than we were used to. So we’re coming to work very scared.”

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