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Fact check: South Dakota governor ignores poor health numbers to claim state’s pandemic performance has been ‘better than virtually every other state’


South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem claimed in a Fox News interview on Tuesday that, thanks to her state’s “unique” approach to the coronavirus pandemic, they “got through it better than virtually every other state.”

Noem, a Republican who has opposed mask mandates and many pandemic-related restrictions, delivered the boast after Fox host Laura Ingraham favorably compared South Dakota’s health and economic performance to that of more strict and Democratic-run New York. Ingraham then asked Noem why the media has targeted her for criticism.

Noem said, “You know, Laura, I really think it’s about control. They have used, for the last year, fear to control people.” Noem continued that since the “science” made clear it was impossible to completely stop the virus, only to slow it down and protect “vulnerable” people, she decided to “allow people to be flexible — to take care of their families and still put food on the table.”

“That was a unique approach that, for our people, really worked well. We did have tragedies, and we did have losses, but we also got through it better than virtually every other state. And I think the media hates that,” Noem said. “Because it really is a testimony to what Republicans believe in, what conservatives believe in.”

Facts First: Noem’s claim that South Dakota “got through it better than virtually every other state” is false with regard to public health: South Dakota has had the second-most coronavirus cases per capita and is in a tie with Connecticut for the sixth-most coronavirus deaths per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University data as of Thursday.

It is true that South Dakota has done better than virtually every other state on a key economic measure — its 3.0% seasonally adjusted December unemployment rate was tied for best in the country — but Noem didn’t specify on Fox that this is what she was talking about.

Also, of course, no state is actually “through” with the pandemic. While Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the decline in the US, they are declining from record levels. On Wednesday, South Dakota reported three new coronavirus deaths, 209 new cases, and a total of 133 people currently hospitalized with the virus.

Noem’s comments dismayed Dr. Nancy Babbitt, a primary care physician in Rapid City, South Dakota. Babbitt told CNN that it is “painful from a doctor’s point of view” to see the governor celebrate her economy-focused decisions without explaining that those decisions caused “real pain and suffering” from additional infections and additional deaths.

Noem supported some limited pandemic restrictions in 2020. But she has generally been a vocal opponent of restrictions and mandates, earning national media attention — and sparking some speculation about the possibility of a run for president in 2024 — by advocating for “freedom” and “personal responsibility.”

Noem has also endorsed large gatherings without social distancing. South Dakota’s fall coronavirus crisis came after the annual, massive Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August, which Noem supported holding during the pandemic.

The numbers

South Dakota had experienced 12,280 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people as of Thursday, per Johns Hopkins data — which means about 1 in 8 state residents were known to have had the virus. (As in other states and countries, the true number may be substantially higher.) North Dakota, at 12,851 cases per 100,000 people, was the only state with a worse per-capita figure; New York — which is far more densely populated and which experienced its first big outbreak when less was known about the virus — was at 7,423 cases per 100,000 people.

South Dakota had experienced 201 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people as of Thursday — which means about 1 in 500 people in the state were known to have died from the virus. Only New Jersey (244 deaths per 100,000 people), New York (227), Massachusetts (213), Mississippi (208) and Rhode Island (207) had done worse by this measure.

South Dakota had relatively few cases and deaths in the first half of 2020, when some other states, including New York, were already mired in a crisis. But South Dakota then had a massive fall outbreak, with new cases peaking in November and new deaths in early December.

Noem spokesman Ian Fury pointed out to CNN that South Dakota experienced its pandemic peak in the fall and has since seen a major improvement in its numbers, while the situations in other states have gotten worse since the fall. Given the difference in the timing of each state’s outbreak, Fury said, it’s hard to do an “apples-to-apples” comparison at this point.

Fair enough — it’s absolutely possible that South Dakota’s performance relative to other states will look somewhat better in, say, three months or six months. But there’s just no good argument now that South Dakota has gotten through the pandemic better, from a health perspective, than virtually any other state.

So what was Noem boasting about on Fox? Fury said the governor’s comments were about not only public health but about the state economy and budget.

Fury cited the low state unemployment rate that actually declined in 2020, the fact that the state has a fiscal surplus while some states that imposed stricter restrictions are experiencing fiscal struggles, and the fact that South Dakota is seeing an influx of residents from other states.

Fury also mentioned that South Dakota has so far been a national leader in the speed with which it has vaccinated residents for the virus, a fact President Joe Biden’s administration has acknowledged.

Still, Noem did not explain on Fox that she was talking specifically about how South Dakota has done well by financial measures or in its pace of vaccination. She simply made a general declaration that South Dakota has done better than virtually any other state in getting through the pandemic. That’s a highly incomplete account of the state’s story.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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