Noem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech

South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemWestern US airports face jet fuel shortage Noem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis MORE (R) in her address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday touted her state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, while criticizing other state leaders for resorting to restrictive measures to combat the virus. 

Noem, an ally of former President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE, began her address in Orlando, Fla., Saturday stating that America needs conservatives for one reason — the year 2020.  

“The question of why America needs conservatives can be answered by just mentioning one single year, and that year is 2020,” she said.  “Everybody knows that almost overnight we went from a roaring economy to a tragic, nationwide shutdown,” she continued, before attributing a record low unemployment rate at the beginning of 2020 to Trump.

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The South Dakota governor went on to say that once the pandemic hit, many states chose to implement widespread shutdowns, which Noem said resulted in significant job losses, school closures and an economic downturn.

“Now let me be clear: COVID didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy,” she said. 

Noem added that South Dakota was the only state that never ordered “a single business or church to close,” and also did not issue a shelter-in-place order or a mask mandate, prompting applause and a standing ovation from many in the crowd. 

Noem also took aim at Anthony FauciAnthony FauciCNN: Every county in Florida, Arkansas rated 'high transmission' for community spread Rising case count reignites debate over COVID-19 restrictions Trump surgeon general: 'Pandemic is spiraling out of control' MORE, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, claiming that President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE’s chief medical adviser is “wrong a lot,” a comment that also received a standing ovation from conference attendees. 

"We never focused on the case numbers,” Noem explained. “Instead, we kept our eye on hospital capacity. Now Dr. FauciAnthony FauciCNN: Every county in Florida, Arkansas rated 'high transmission' for community spread Rising case count reignites debate over COVID-19 restrictions Trump surgeon general: 'Pandemic is spiraling out of control' MORE, he told me that on my worst day I’d have 10,000 patients in the hospital. On our worst day, we had a little over 600.” 

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Despite Noem’s defense of her particular approach to the pandemic, South Dakota saw some of the highest coronavirus cases and deaths per capita of any state in the U.S. this fall, despite having a relatively small population of approximately 884,000. 

In August, the state played host to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where close to half a million people gathered in a South Dakota county. The event was later connected to some outbreaks in the Dakotas and the surrounding states.  

The state has since recovered from the surge in the fall. 

According to The New York Times coronavirus database, the state has seen a total of more than 112,000 coronavirus infections and 1,886 deaths as a result of the virus. 

Noem has not explicitly said if she is eyeing a 2024 bid for the White House, but her remarks at CPAC may provide a sneak peak of potential talking points in a bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

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Presidential hopefuls often speak at the gathering, providing an opportunity for them to attract widespread recognition and support from the Republican party faithful. 

A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll put Noem at 1 percent among a crowded race of potential 2024 contenders, with a majority saying they would back Trump himself if he should run again. 

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to The Hill this week that there will be a fundraiser for Noem’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club next month hosted by Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly GuilfoyleKimberly GuilfoyleTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump unhappy with Guilfoyle backing Greitens: report Giuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri MORE

Noem has vocally indicated her closeness with the former president, including late last month when she said she gave Trump a $1,100 bust depicting the former president on Mount Rushmore in July of last year during his controversial Independence Day visit amid the pandemic. 

Trump during his visit delivered an address in front of thousands of people, many of whom were not masked or socially distanced.

Updated 11:33 p.m.