David Lias

The University of South Dakota has announced that it plans to begin face-to-face instruction on the Vermillion campus this fall and Kurt Hackemer, provost & vice president - academic affairs And Kim Grieve, vice president - student services and dean of students at the university, told the Vermillion City Council Monday of the numerous adaptations that are being made to classrooms and other areas to make that possible.

They also emphasized one simple step that will be emphasized time and time and time again to virtually everyone who steps foot on the campus:

Wear a mask.

“Students have really gotten involved with making sure this is going to be a safe campus, so many of our student organizations are working on a student ‘Wear Your Mask’ campaign,” she told the Vermillion City Council at its noon meeting. “We will continue to build that and continue to inform students and hope that they will make better choices and not go in places where they can’t be socially distant and where they can’t wear a mask. We know we can’t control all of it, but it will be important for our students to run that campaign and continue to run that campaign throughout the year.”

By now, those of us who like to skim through social media have likely seen videos -- some that have gone viral -- of rather bizarre behavior that has gone on in different parts of the country regarding mask wearing and other safety measures (like standing six feet away from someone) that the CDC has been recommending for months now to help stay safe as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the country.

Notice I didn’t say was sweeping across the country … COVID-19 is still here. Infection numbers appear to be going down in South Dakota, but it’s difficult to know if that’s really, truly the case because testing has been a hit or miss process in this state.

On a national scale, health officials agree that the number of reported cases is much lower than the actual number of people who now have, or did have, COVID-19. Testing was slow to begin, and far fewer U.S. residents have been tested than experts say is necessary to get a true picture of the virus’s reach.

The month of June has taught residents of Clay County just how quickly positive test numbers can climb. For about a two week period leading mid-way through the first week of June, the county’s positive test numbers remained steady at 15. Meanwhile, the virus was blooming, relatively speaking, in Union and Yankton counties, our two neighbors.

All of that changed, beginning midway through the first week of June.

The state’s daily COVID-19 reports began showing positive test numbers in the county on about June 3. Every day, that number would increase by a few more.

By June 11, Clay County had recorded 35 new cases in the last 12 days and reached a total of 50 positive tests in total. The county’s testing rate picked up that day, with 53 total tests processed. By June 11, the county had processed 757 tests.

The numbers kept climbing. As of Wednesday, June 17, we are at 69 positive tests. I’ll mention too, at the suggestion of a reader, that our county also saw three new recoveries for a total of 44 to date. A total of 801 people in Clay County have tested negative for COVID-19.

I suggest that we shouldn’t take all that much comfort in the recovery numbers. Current public policy -- nationwide, statewide, county-wide and in the city of Vermillion -- is being driven by positive numbers and likely will continue to be for a long time.

Thus, USD knows it needs to focus on keeping recovery numbers low and the only way you can do that is to keep people from getting sick in the first place and one of the best ways you can make that happen is to … wear a mask.

This isn’t rocket science.

The CDC’s latest, updated guidelines, issued June 12, urge all of us to continue to be vigilant about protecting ourselves -- and others.

That means wearing cloth face coverings in public, not touching your face with unwashed hands, washing your hands often, practicing physical distancing, monitoring yourself for COVID-19 symptoms and staying home if showing any symptoms.

Hackemer noted that there will be a big, ongoing campaign on the USD campus about wearing masks.

“I think a corresponding campaign on masks in the city would be awesome,” he said, adding that his periodic forays into some retail stores in our community suggests that the idea of mask wearing isn’t taking hold in our community. “I think there are elements of this community that take this very seriously; I think there are elements of the community that take it less seriously.”

A communication effort that involves both the city and the campus could help. I can’t help but think that we have a duty, as citizens of Vermillion, to lead by example.

Mask wearing is important. There’s no better way to pass that message on to not only your fellow citizens but also USD students who will be arriving here in August than by wearing a mask.

Starting NOW.

“If we can get students and everyone to wear masks, we’ll be able to make this work,” Grieve told the city council, referring to USD students’ return in August, “but if we don’t, it’s clear in our model that it will be very difficult.”

An idea suggested Monday to hopefully attain the goal of having not only USD faculty and students don masks but also Vermillion community members is to develop a public relations campaign aimed at both the campus and the city.

“This is not going to work if USD does it by itself,” Hackemer said. “It’s just not.”

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