As COVID-19 cases rise, health care industry sees upheaval

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota health officials on Tuesday reported 320 new cases of COVID-19 as the state experiences an uptick in cases in recent weeks and state lawmakers readied plans to address the crisis with federal relief money.

Representatives from the state’s health care providers told lawmakers that the pandemic has stressed their operations, revenues and staff as the number of hospitalizations increased and infections spread. State legislators concluded a series of public input sessions Tuesday as they prepare for a special legislative session on Oct. 5.

Gov. Kristi Noem called the session so the Legislature can provide input on using the $1.25 billion in federal funds the state received to address the pandemic and its economic impact. The state has so far spent about $114 million.

The Republican governor has proposed making $100 million available to health care providers that provide services through Medicaid and other federal and state programs. She has also proposed a plan to make $400 million available to businesses hurt by the pandemic.

Over the last two weeks, South Dakota has reported the nation’s second-most new cases per capita, with 405 new cases per 100,000 people. The number of hospitalizations also rose to 178, representing 7% of hospital beds in the state. About 46% of hospital beds are open statewide.

Noem continued to downplay the threat of the pandemic, saying in a tweet that “we continue to be in good shape” with the number of people hospitalized.

But South Dakota's Second Judicial Circuit Court, which operates in Sioux Falls, announced that it is suspending jury trials, citing the rise in hospitalizations. Three school districts in the state have also canceled in-person classes due to outbreaks among staff.

Health care providers described to lawmakers how their operations have been upended in recent months, creating a crunch that has led to both shortfalls in staffing and forced furloughs in their industry.

“Nursing centers are facing extraordinarily difficult choices,” Mark Deak, the executive director of the South Dakota Health Care Association, which lobbies for long-term care facilities, told lawmakers.

He also warned that some facilities could face closures as they bear extra expenses combined with a downturn in residents due to fears of outbreaks in facilities. The pandemic also has taken a toll on the mental health of residents as facilities restrict visitors.

With the region emerging as a hotspot of the virus, others pushed for expanding testing to help stem an increase in COVID-19 patients and outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

The seven-day positivity average for COVID-19 testing is over 17% in South Dakota, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That is one of the highest positivity rates in the nation and an indicator that there are many infections that testing is not catching.

“Additional hotspots will emerge over the next weeks and months, even in rural communities,” said Jill Franken, who is a board member at the Community HealthCare Association of the Dakotas.

Over the course of the pandemic, more than 19,000 people have tested positive for the virus in South Dakota. About 84% of those people have fully recovered, but 2,817 have active infections and 202 have died. The Department of Health did not report any new deaths Tuesday.