David Lias

President Donald Trump’s speech during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was filled with inaccuracies, racial slurs and, well, downright lies. Log on to: https://www.startribune.com/ap-fact-check-in-time-of-trauma-trumps-congratulates-self/571386481/ if you’re interested in reading more about that.

However, in the middle of telling one of his rather downright weird whoppers, he actually unveiled a bit of truth. Shocking, I know.

Trump claimed, while talking about COVID-19 during his time in Tulsa, that he had “said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please!’”

That’s the part of his rather ridiculous statement that’s true: if testing isn’t adequate, the outcome will be lower than the actual number of positive COVID-19 cases.

It is this fact that I’ve been noodling all of this week while pondering if we truly know what our COVID-19 situation is here in South Dakota and closer to home in Clay County.

The Yankton P&D has been kind enough to start building graphs that help all of us better visualize the data we receive each day from the South Dakota Department of Health. Check the graph in today’s issue and you’ll see just what a roller coaster the month of June in Clay County has been.

June 1 was the day that city restrictions on some businesses were lifted as local officials followed guidelines in Gov. Kristi Noem’s “back to normal” plan. The total positive tests in Clay County had stayed steady, at about 15, for about two weeks prior to that day.

Things went a bit crazy after that. Positive test numbers in the county began climbing. And climbing. We hit a peak of 41 active cases on June 13, and since then, the numbers have gone down a bit each day. As of Wednesday, June 24, positive tests in Clay County are at 76 and active cases are at 17.

So, we can all conclude that, while we’re not doing as good as we were at the beginning of the month, our local efforts at social distancing and mask wearing and following other CDC recommendations have helped bring down local COVID-19 positive test numbers.

Or can we? The short answer to that is, no. We can’t make such a conclusion.

Last weekend, things seemed to be going pretty well in the county. We had 17 active cases on June 19. We had three new positive tests on June 20 but two recoveries so our active cases grew by only one, to 18. We stayed at 18 active cases on June 21. Positive tests remained at 73 on June 22 and Clay County’s numbers of active cases dropped to 16. On June 23, however, Clay County reported four new positive tests. Its active test numbers grew by only two, to 18, meaning as four new positive cases were revealed, two people recovered from the illness.

It’s so easy to think that these numbers reflect both how “sick” and how “well” the people of Clay County are when it comes to COVID-19.

Except that during Monday’s daily coronavirus briefing, state epidemiologist Josh Clayton said the low number of test results statewide on June 22 -- the day when Clay County’s positive test numbers didn’t budge -- had become a normal sign of reduced weekend testing, adding that the volume rises during the weekdays.

So … how many people in Clay County are infected with COVID-19? We know there are at least 76 total who have been infected and 17 still have the virus. All of these people have been tested.

In late April, a month after it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in South Dakota, KELO-TV asked Dr. Robert Summerer, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, if he thought South Dakotans could easily “get the test” at that time.

“No, I don’t think it’s available and that is part of the problem. At this point, at least in our state, we’re somewhat limiting who should be getting the test—more vulnerable, patients who are symptomatic, health care workers,” he said. “We’re all being somewhat careful about who gets a test because of availability and supply.”

Testing availability and supply has been a problem in South Dakota since it became clear that we had a pandemic on our hands in late March. Yes, testing ramped up last month, with the state announcing that about 7,400 residents and staff members of nursing homes with attached assisted living centers in areas with substantial community spread of COVID-19 would be tested.

By now, planned testing in similar facilities across the state in areas where there is not substantial community spread -- that’s about 10,200 more people -- should be complete, followed by a third phase of about 4,300 in the remaining assisted living centers and congregate care settings.

Testing is also being planned for people living on Native American reservations.

But -- and this can’t be stressed enough -- South Dakota’s policy for COVID-19 testing, according to the Department of Health’s web page is: “Medical providers are recommended to test individuals with signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 infection.”

We are able to glean the number of positive cases, recoveries and negative cases from the state Department of Health web page.

Asymptomatic people also may carry and spread the virus and it’s likely, because of the state’s testing policy, that they’ll never be tested. That means you or I may have COVID-19. How would we know for sure if we’re carrying the bug?

Testing. That’s how.

Every day, we try to provide the latest stats concerning COVID-19 in South Dakota and in Clay County. As you look at those numbers, though, especially if they’re showing a downward trend, remember the words of President Trump, who said during a speech on June 11, a bit more than a week before his Tulsa rally: “When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”

The numbers we share daily aren’t an assessment of our overall health. It’s a reflection of our testing. We know that people with symptoms are getting tested.

That’s likely not adequate, however. It means there may be more people ill with COVID-19 across the state and in Clay County than daily statistics will ever show.


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