Story at a glance
- Speaking at CPAC, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem explains her lenient public health protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- She criticized Anthony Fauci in her speech, which prompted a standing ovation.
In a crowded room in Orlando, Fla., South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) spoke about her state’s COVID-19 response to the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a response that was notably different from most other states.
Over the course of the pandemic, South Dakota never implemented a statewide mandatory mask requirement, nor did it even shutter businesses and churches. Schools have reopened, and the state still managed to host its annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August of 2020 despite the summer COVID-19 outbreak.
Keeping with CPAC’s theme of upholding state’s rights past the reach of the federal government, Noem explained that her decisions came from “arbitrary restrictions” that weren’t suited to each state and that mitigating the spread would hurt the state’s economy.
As Noem touts her state has the nation's lowest unemployment rate, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports it was about 3 percent in December 2020 — well below the U.S.'s 6.3 unemployment rate. She largely credits this to not shutting down businesses during the pandemic.
“COVID didn’t crush the economy,” she said. “Government crushed the economy.”
In making these decisions, Noem stated that she defied recommendations from the lead advisor on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Anthony Fauci.
Fauci has consistently advocated the use of face masks and social distancing to mitigate COVID-19 spread as vaccines become more widely distributed.
“Now Dr. Fauci,” Noem began, “he told me on my worst day, I’d have 10,000 patients in the hospital. On our worst day, we had a little over 600.”
The CPAC crowd began cheering, to which Noem continued to say “Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot.”
This prompted a standing ovation.
Speaking to CBS News on Sunday, Fauci was quick to offer a rebuttal, saying Noem’s comments were “unfortunate” and “not really helpful.”
He further said that any respites seen in new COVID-19 cases have given way to future outbreaks.
“Sometimes you think things are going well and just take a look at the numbers,” he continued. “They don’t lie.”
Fauci does agree that the pandemic has seen different case-by-case scenarios of how the virus spreads in various regions, but he warns of the new variants that are spreading more efficiently and could result in a more serious and substantial outbreak.
“I’m sure you could get a standing ovation by saying I’m wrong, but...if you look at the scientific facts and follow what we need to do, as these cases are coming down, the thing we don’t want is for them to...start plateauing at a level that’ll give us a lot of trouble,” he noted.
South Dakota’s current COVID-19 situation shows the stagnant, relatively low case count from March to August 2020 that Noem referenced, but it also reveals a staggering outbreak that occurred over the winter months of 2020 and 2021.
Additionally, aggregated data reveals that South Dakota maintains the second highest COVID-19 infection rate per capita, with about 12,609 cases per 100,000 people. Hospitalizations per capita aren't ideal, either, with The Washington Post reporting South Dakota reports about 58 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, the highest in the nation, only surpassed by Nevada.
“We don’t want to continue to prevent people from doing what they want to do but let’s get down to a good level, let's get many, many more people vaccinated and then you can pull back on those types of public health measures,” said Fauci.
Fauci acknowledged that maintaining lockdowns and closures is difficult, but the COVID-19 spread needs to be substantially slowed before a sustained reopening can occur.
“We’re not victorious yet,” he concluded.
Currently, South Dakota has 1,933 active COVID-19 cases and saw more than 99,000 confirmed cases throughout the pandemic.