‘It’s finally got to rural America’: Covid-19 surges in the Dakotas

 Like many in South Dakota, Curt Soehl believed the sparsely populated state tucked deep into America’s interior would be spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

But after a summer in which its stubbornly independent residents broadly flouted public health recommendations, Soehl, a member of the city council in Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city, noticed the virus creeping closer.

His two daughters, who are nurses, told him in September about the toll that rising infections were taking on the hospital where they work. Then Soehl’s next-door neighbour fell ill, as did another neighbour across the street. Covid deaths are now coming in bunches.

“All of a sudden you’re getting 20, 30, 40, 50 deaths a day. And for us, in a small state and in a small community like ours, those are some significant numbers,” Soehl said. “It has not affected us as early as the metropolitan areas like New York, or Philadelphia or Chicago, but it’s finally got to rural America. And that’s where we are today.”

'Our people thought: "We don’t need to do all those recommendations that the medical association had given because we’re so far apart"'

North and South Dakota, with a combined population of just over 1.5 million, have become an unlikely hotbed of a global pandemic. South Dakota has a positivity rate of more than 43 per cent of those tested, according to Johns Hopkins University. That is among the highest in the nation and compared with about 3 per cent in New York. North Dakota, meanwhile, was recently found to have the highest Covid death rate per capita in the world.

What distinguishes the pandemic in rural communities, according to health experts, is that so many residents believed they were insulated in ways that their urban counterparts were not. It is a notion that was often encouraged by their political leaders.

Motorcyclists ride through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota during a rally in August, 2020. Photograph: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images
Motorcyclists ride through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota during a rally in August, 2020. Photograph: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

At times, they almost appeared to taunt the virus. With the backing of governor Kristi Noem, for example, South Dakota disregarded public health warnings and went ahead with a 10-day motorcycle rally in August that drew an estimated 460,000 people to the town of Sturgis. It has since been blamed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for sowing Covid cases across the Midwest.

Noem, a close ally of US president Donald Trump, also welcomed him and thousands of supporters to Mount Rushmore for a July 4th fireworks celebration. The governor made it clear that social distancing and masks were not necessary.

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