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Why South Dakota's Governor Is Resistant To Issuing Stay-At-Home Order

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

South Dakota is doing things differently. The Republican governor there, Kristi Noem, has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Now there's an outbreak of COVID-19 at a meat processing facility in Sioux Falls, and some in local government are pleading with the state to do more. Lee Strubinger of South Dakota Public Broadcasting reports.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: The number of COVID-19 cases in Sioux Falls, S.D., is jumping fast. Mayor Paul TenHaken calls it an explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL TENHAKEN: The window, though, of time for mitigation is certainly dwindling right now.

STRUBINGER: Smithfield Foods, the meat processing plant, recently shut its doors. Three hundred and fifty people who work at the plant have tested positive for COVID-19. TenHaken is asking for a shelter-in-place order from the state. By law, it would take Sioux Falls seven days to enact an ordinance on its own.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TENHAKEN: Our time to act on this is right now.

STRUBINGER: But Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a President Trump ally, has been hesitant to issue any shelter-in-place or statewide stay-at-home orders, instead taking a targeted approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTI NOEM: I've been very clear about the fact that I don't think decisions in Sioux Falls are the same decisions that are correct and right for a town like Faith, S.D., or Lemmon, S.D.

STRUBINGER: The governor says if she issued a stay-at-home order, it would flatten the curve so much that it would have to stay in place until October to be effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOEM: We have to maintain a reasonable perspective so that we can make the best decisions for the people in this state.

STRUBINGER: In two counties, Noem has ordered all people over the age of 65 to stay home. She's also said that people and businesses shall practice CDC guidance.

DREW HARRIS: Yeah, I'm not sure that accomplishes what they hope it would accomplish.

STRUBINGER: That's Drew Harris, a population health researcher at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

HARRIS: If you're allowing people to mix within an establishment, essentially interact, then the virus is going to spread.

STRUBINGER: Numbers in South Dakota are relatively low right now, but Harris says without stronger mitigation, cases could rapidly increase. He likens the epidemic to a prairie wildfire and a stay-at-home order to a firebreak intended to suppress the flame.

HARRIS: You always know that some embers are going to jump over the firebreak, start new fires, but they're much more manageable. And you just put out each one of those hot spots one at a time.

STRUBINGER: When it comes to combating the coronavirus, though, Governor Noem does have another idea. Noem said she spent last week urging the White House Coronavirus Task Force to allow South Dakota to begin a statewide trial of hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by the Trump administration as a potential therapeutic for COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOEM: This would be the first ever state-endorsed, state-backed, statewide clinical trial available in the United States.

STRUBINGER: But in what little research has been done on the drug to treat coronavirus, there have been no reported results. Noem says, though, the trial will put the state on offense against the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.