South Dakota has suffered more than the vast majority of states since the coronavirus pandemic hit. Though it’s one of the least populous states in the nation, its Covid-19 per capita death rate is the eighth highest in the nation. Its per capita case rate is even worse: number two in the United States, after neighboring North Dakota.
Only someone who is deliberately ignorant, or ghoulishly dishonest, would suggest that South Dakota is a pandemic success story.
Meet Kristi Noem. She’s the Republican governor of the Mount Rushmore State and an increasingly serious contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—if Donald Trump gets out of her way. Both Noem and Trump appeared at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida last weekend. The former president got the most attention for his aggressively combative, and rigorously anti-factual, address. Yet it was Noem who delivered the most dangerously delusional speech at a conference where that commodity was in abundant supply.
The South Dakotan switched her hubris to overdrive and announced, without a hint of irony, that as Covid-19 swept across the Great Plains, “my administration resisted the call for virus control at the expense of everything else.”
Seriously. The 49-year-old governor framed her appeal to the people whom she hoped would see her as presidential—if not in 2024, then in 2028—around a claim that South Dakota responded correctly to the pandemic. And the CPAC crowd ate it up. Fox News hailed her as a “breakout star” of the annual gathering, where she finished behind Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in straw polls but well ahead of former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and other GOP prospects.
Profits Over People
Portraying herself as a champion of profits over people, Noem imagined Trump’s America as a sort of economic nirvana before March 2020, when “a tragic nationwide shutdown” ruined everything. Well, almost everything. Because in Noem’s preposterous reimagining of the pandemic year, she comes out as the hero—a little bit George Washington, a little bit Ronald Reagan—who stood among the graves of her fellow South Dakotans and defended business as usual.
“Now, most governors shut down their states,” said Noem.
What followed was record unemployment, businesses closed, most schools were shuttered and communities suffered, and the US economy came to an immediate halt. Now let me be clear, Covid didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy. And then just as quickly, government turned around and held itself out as the savior, and frankly, the Treasury Department can’t print money fast enough to keep up with Congress’s wish list. But not everyone has followed this path. For those of you who don’t know, South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter in place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is, because I don’t believe that governors have the authority to tell you that your business isn’t essential.
Perhaps that really is what she believes.
Certainly, that is what she wants the conservative campaign donors and activists who determine the fate of presidential contenders to believe.
But Noem left some troublesome details out of her campaign hagiography.
Like the fact that, all the way back in April of 2020, Trump approved a major disaster declaration for South Dakota so that federal emergency aid could be used to supplement the state’s efforts to keep ahead of a burgeoning Covid crisis. That declaration was fairly typical at the time, as all states were struggling to keep ahead of the pandemic. What was notable was that it came on April 5, just one day after one of Noem’s closest political allies, Republican state Representative Bob Glanzer, a former banker and manager of the South Dakota State Fair, had died after an agonizing two-week battle with Covid. The governor ordered flags lowered to honor the dead legislator, hailed him as a “true statesman,” and eventually declared, “No one was a better example of South Dakota values than Bob Glanzer. We were all sorry to lose Bob, but we know he has earned his reward for a life well-lived.”
Bob Glanzer didn’t rate a mention in Noem’s CPAC speech. Neither did the almost 2,000 other South Dakotans who have died over the past year. They were cast aside in her rush to rewrite history, as was the memory of when things got so bad that a December Washington Post article reported South Dakota was experiencing “one of the worst—if not the worst—coronavirus outbreaks in the country.”
Noem Was, in Fact, Lying
Instead, the governor as the pandemic ramped up in fall 2020 used her Twitter account to mock social distancing and continued to ridicule those who counseled people to wear masks and take basic steps to protect themselves from a deadly virus.
“We have to show people how arbitrary these restrictions are, and the coercion, the force, and the anti-liberty steps that governments take to enforce them. Often, the enforcement isn’t based on facts,” Noem ranted during her 26-minute CPAC address. “Justifying these mitigation efforts has been anything but scientific. Now many in the media, they criticized South Dakota’s approach. They labeled me as ill-informed, that I was reckless, and even a denier. Some even claimed that South Dakota was as bad as it gets anywhere in the world when it comes to Covid-19. That is a lie.”
In fact, it was Noem who was lying. As early as mid-April, when the virus was devastating the state’s meatpacking plants and surrounding communities, a Washington Post headline announced, “South Dakota’s governor resisted ordering people to stay home. Now it has one of the nation’s largest coronavirus hot spots.” With the death toll mounting, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken pleaded, “A shelter-in-place order is needed now. It is needed today.” Noem refused, and she kept refusing, as things went from bad to worse.
By the fall of 2020, South Dakota’s death toll was spiking at a rate so alarming that the whole country was taking notice. Former Harvard Medical School professor William Haseltine, the founder of the Virus Research Institute and author of A Family Guide to Covid (ACCESS Health International), said that the crisis in the Dakotas was “as bad as it gets anywhere in the world.” Dr. Ali Mokdad, a public health researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told USA Today that South Dakota was experiencing per capita infection and death rates that experts would expect to see in a war-torn nation.
“How could we allow this in the United States to happen?” Mokdad said of the Covid crisis in South Dakota. “This is unacceptable by any standards.”
Plenty of medical experts raised the alarm. In fall 2020, when conditions in South Dakota were deteriorating, Dr. Anthony Fauci urged Americans to “double down” on public health measures. Speaking from the White House in mid-November, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert delivered an impassioned plea for “intensifying the simple public health measures that we all talk about: mask-wearing, staying distanced, avoiding congregate settings.” “We’ve really seen our numbers escalating,” Dr. Robert Summerer of the South Dakota State Medical Association warned. “We’re having challenges here finding beds for patients.”
The association called for a statewide mask mandate. Noem refused, claiming, “Some have said that my refusal to mandate masks is a reason why our cases are rising here in South Dakota, and that is not true.” Headlines screamed, “As deaths spiral, South Dakota governor opposes mask rules.” Even as neighboring North Dakota adopted a mask mandate, Noem questioned whether wearing masks prevented infections. Why was she rejecting science? The Associated Press noted, “The approach has given her significant influence within the Republican Party. She spoke to incoming GOP members of Congress this weekend in Washington, D.C., and posted photos of Monday meetings with members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. She was not wearing a mask in any of the photos.”
Thousands of People Have Died
Noem also wasn’t wearing a mask when she appeared Saturday at CPAC and cheerily declared, “We never focused on the case numbers. Instead, we kept our eye on hospital capacity.” That was an odd thing to brag about, as South Dakota’s largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, had reported in early December:
South Dakota’s largest hospitals are at or above their capacity to care for critically ill COVID-19 patients, forcing some of the sickest patients to be flown out of state to receive care.
The strain of a months-long surge in coronavirus cases has reduced hospital capacity to care for those with severe symptoms, making it increasingly uncertain whether the sickest South Dakotans will be able to get treatment in the state, health providers say. Meanwhile, ICU space is quickly evaporating in neighboring states as well.
Noem’s big applause line in her CPAC speech was an attack on Fauci—“Now, I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot”—which gained a raucous standing ovation from the conservative crowd. Fauci responded politely, saying the governor’s remarks were “unfortunate” and “not very helpful” at a time when coronavirus variants are spreading nationally and case numbers were again rising in South Dakota.
Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center who has been a frequent commentator on the pandemic, was blunter. Calling Noem’s remarks “outrageous,” Reiner said, “As the virus was spreading across the Great Plains, she refused to institute a mask mandate. As a result, 10 percent of the people in South Dakota have been infected with the coronavirus. Thousands of people have died. So her science denialism has resulted in the propagation of that disease unnecessarily throughout her state mercilessly.”