How the virus spread like wildfire in Sept.


The U.S. has reached 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Now experts are looking ahead, and the forecast for the fall and winter isn’t good.


When state health officials modeled how they thought coronavirus would strike South Dakota in the early, grim, days of the pandemic, they assumed the virus would wallop the entire state at once.

The assumptions for how the pandemic would play out, including the need for thousands of additional hospital beds, didn’t go as planned. Instead, the virus flared up here and there in what state epidemiologist Joshua Clayton described as an eb and flow. Meanwhile, large parts of rural South Dakota remained lightly touched.

But the month of September looked more like that original model. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s counties saw a doubling of their positive cases. Hospitalizations hit a record, though well below the thousands estimated in April.

The start of October on Thursday continued the trend, with record one-day positive case reports, along with record deaths and recoveries.

Throughout the state, the number of people who tested positive for the disease increased by nearly 66% in September. But some counties saw much higher levels of disease transmission.

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On Aug. 31, for example, Gregory County had 22 of its residents test positive. By Sept. 30, that number had increased to 136, a 518% increase. Three of the county’s residents had died in the pandemic.

Given widespread transmission in more populated parts of the state as well as a relaxation of the precautions people were taking, Clayton said Thursday that it was only a “matter of time,” before widespread transmission would hit other parts of the state.

“Some areas are just now seeing their first cases in the last four to six weeks,” he said.

A healthcare worker walks through a sea of cars at a coronavirus testing site in the Washington High School parking lot on Monday, May 4, in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)

Some of the earlier modeling done on how the disease would spread here and in other states has been beneficial, he added.

Large increases last month weren’t exclusive to smaller, rural counties. Codington County saw an increase of 181%, 318 cases on Aug. 31 to 894 on Wednesday. In contrast, Minnehaha County cases increased by 29%.

Infections increased 645% in Tripp County, from 22 to 164. Thursday, the Department of Health reported that county’s first fatality. Tripp County Commissioner Mike Novotny said he wasn’t aware of a specific event that contributed to his county’s increases.

“I would have no idea what a person could attribute it to,” he said.

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Grant County Commissioner Marty Buttke also said he couldn’t pinpoint a specific reason for his county’s increase. Grant County went from 42 of its residents infected on Aug. 31 to 144 on Wednesday, a 243% increase.

“It’s just making a swing again,” he said.

Buttke has been flummoxed by the disease. Some people he knows who have caught COVID-19 have barely been sick, while some healthy people have been hit hard by the virus. Grant County had registered one death as of Wednesday.

“I think we’re going to have to have herd immunity or a vaccine,” he said. “There’s people carrying it that don’t know they have it. They’re not going to be tested. They aren’t knowing they are spreading it.”

South Dakota wasn’t alone in seeing a rapid September increase. Between Aug. 31 and Oct., North Dakota had an increase of 88% while Montana saw an 82% increase.

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