Several days ago, I mentioned AARP’s maps showing that South Dakota has the worst rates of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths among nursing home residents in the nation. Liz Essley Whyte of the Center for Public Integrity follows up with a deeper report noting that more than 40% of our nursing homes have lost a tenth or more of their residents to coronavirus:
At Jenkin’s Living Center in Watertown, 24 residents have died from COVID-19 since the last week of October — about a fifth of the residents there — data submitted to the federal government show. Thirteen patients at Weskota Manor in Wessington Springs — more than a third of its patients — died from COVID-19 this autumn, most of them in one week. Walworth County Care Center in Selby, a 50-bed facility, saw COVID-19 kill 12 patients this autumn, an administrator said. Overall, more than 40 percent of South Dakota nursing homes have lost a tenth or more of their patients to the coronavirus, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [Liz Essley Whyte, “South Dakota’s Coronavirus Surge Is Turning Nursing Homes into a ‘Battle Zone’,” Center for Public Integrity, 2020.12.22].
The Tieszen Memorial Home in Marion lost 20 residents, more than a third of its clients, to coronavirus in five weeks in October and November. The facility took good precautions from the beginning of the pandemic, but with a surrounding community that refused to take its own precautions, it was only a matter of time before a worker would bring in the disease:
Many South Dakotans have refused to wear masks or socially distance. In September, [Tieszen administrator Laura] Wilson spoke at a meeting of local business owners in Marion and urged them to take mask-wearing seriously. She was met with blank stares.
“When I left that meeting I had basically resigned myself to the fact that I am living in a different world, and they don’t get it,” she said. “I’d be the only person in the grocery store with a mask on” [Whyte, 2020.12.22].
Getting the facts and talking about them would help the public and policymakers understand the scope of the pandemic and take better actions against it. But Whyte found it really hard to get South Dakota officials and experts to talk about how coronavirus has hammered our nursing homes:
…the governor’s spokesperson did not answer questions from the Center for Public Integrity regarding nursing homes or respond to requests for comment. Noem’s health secretary did not respond to a request for an interview. The South Dakota Department of Health declined to answer multiple emails sent by Public Integrity over multiple weeks. The state’s long-term-care ombudsman refused through an agency spokesman to answer questions. When pressed, the spokesman said he did not know the reason but was given orders to decline the interview.
Even supposed advocates for nursing homes are reluctant to speak about the toll the coronavirus is taking on South Dakota’s elderly. Two trade associations representing nursing homes in the state declined interviews. One of them, the South Dakota Health Care Association, recommended that a reporter speak to the state department of health instead. Another lobbyist, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid angering the Noem administration, said people fear upsetting the governor’s office, known for its guarded approach to dealing with the media [Whyte, 2020.12.22].
This reticence to even talk about the real human cost of the pandemic in South Dakota shows one of the grave dangers our one-party regime poses to the well-being of our state. When one party dominates our state and local governments, and when no other party offers a viable locus of opposition to that dominance, all of South Dakota becomes a one-horse town, where you have to stroke that horse or you don’t ride. The ruling party can delegitimize and shut out the media that should be helping the voting public uncover actionable facts. The advocates for health care facilities, seeing the potential for unchecked political punishment if they advocate for their interests in the media or even publicize simple facts, will also turn their backs on the press and the public and focus on fawning behind closed doors to get their facilities the favors they need from the one-party regime.