“I continue to believe that if we work together, our community has the potential to become the model of what can be and what should be.”
The above statement is a very small part of University of South Dakota President Sheila Gestring’s State of the University address that she delivered last week in Aalfs Auditorium on the University of South Dakota campus, but I personally found this single sentence to be overwhelming with its impact.
Students returned to the university campus in August, with classes resuming Aug. 19. By Aug. 26, there were four active cases of COVID-19 among university employees and 94 among university students, meaning a total of 98 employees and students had tested positive.
There were also 406 students/employees in quarantine or isolation by Aug. 26. This number includes students who may live off-campus or who have returned home to their permanent residences.
Isolation separates sick people from people who are not sick. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.
Those numbers were skyrocketing in late August. Data the university was sharing daily on its COVID-19 Dashboard that included a graph showing a steep climb in the number of people affected by the illness at the university.
By Aug. 28, there were seven active cases of COVID-19 among university employees and 159 among university students, meaning a total of 166 employees and students had tested positive. There were also an astounding 546 university students and employees in quarantine or isolation.
All of these cases were self-reported by individuals who had tested positive or had become ill with the virus.
USD emphasizes that its data may not always align with the number of cases reported on the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH) website. Accurate documentation on the DOH website may take a few days.
By the start of September, the university also tweaked the data it was sharing, adding a fifth category that showed the total number of students who are currently quarantined/isolated in on-campus university housing.
It’s the end of September as I write this. According to the latest data available on Sept. 29, USD has one employee with an active case of COVID-19, along with 22 students, meaning a total of 23 employees and students had tested positive.
On Sept. 29, there were 87 USD faculty, staff and students quarantined and isolated. This includes students who may live off-campus or who have returned home to their permanent residences.
There were also 13 students reported to be in quarantine or in isolation on the USD campus on Sept. 29.
When all of these various categories of COVID-19 being tracked at USD drop from triple digits to double digits, a wonderful thing happens. The graph included on the dashboard that seemed to be defying gravity about a month ago has indeed flattened.
It hit its peak at Aug. 31, with a total of 242 active COVID-19 cases self-reported by students and staff. On Sept. 29, there were a total of 23 active cases at the university -- one employee and 22 students.
This is happening on campus at a time when South Dakota seems to be trying to break the bounds of earth’s gravity with the rate of its climb of positive COVID-19 cases.
It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the nation. Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken appeared on CNN Tuesday afternoon, speaking about the recent spike in cases and hospitalizations in the city as well as South Dakota.
CNN anchor John King introduced TenHaken after discussing South Dakota's record-setting COVID-19 numbers, including the highest positivity rate in the country, and asked the mayor why cases were on the rise.
"It's a little bit of everything," TenHaken said, noting that schools and colleges are open, and the state has been holding in-person events.
"We are a state that values personal freedoms, and values liberties," TenHaken said, "and because of that we haven't had a lot of restrictions, we haven't had a lot of lockdowns, we haven't had a lot of government mandates. And with that comes an increase in cases."
TenHaken lumped “schools and colleges” together and effectively threw them under the bus during his CNN appearance. It is tempting to email the latest USD COVID-19 data to his office and show him how doing the right thing helped turn a big public health problem into virtually a non-issue on the USD campus.
The university has reduced its numbers by doing a lot of things that are recommended by the CDC and other health experts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Masks are required -- Gestring wore a mask while delivering her State of the University speech and taking part in a more casual question and answer discussion in Aalfs Auditorium. Her audience in the auditorium was smaller than usual, with many people choosing to watch the live video stream of the event. Her live audience also wore masks and practiced social distancing.
It would appear that the University of South Dakota has been able to promote a campus culture that is convincing enough people to do the right thing -- including going into quarantine or isolation when needed -- to drastically reduce its number of positive COVID-19 cases.
As far as the state of South Dakota? Well, not so much of that is happening. The state hit a new peak of 3,828 cases on Sept. 28. The case numbers dropped to 3,634 on Sept. 29, as the number of people who recovered from COVID-19 outpaced new infections for the first time in a week, the South Dakota Department of Health reported.
The department also reported five additional deaths, bringing the state toll to 223. Three of the new deaths were in people 80 or older, and two were in the 70-79 age range. Four were men and one was a person from Clay County.
Gov. Kristi Noem’s reaction to the growing numbers statewide? She had someone shoot a video of her shooting a pheasant so she could post it on Twitter. After downing the ringneck, she turns to the camera and says, "Less COVID, more hunting. That's the plan for the future."
I much prefer the University of South Dakota’s plan. And yes, I know the governor truly doesn’t believe that pheasant hunting will magically make COVID-19 case numbers magically drop in the state (what sane person would?), but USD has indeed proven itself to be a “model of what can be and what should be.”
The governor should strive to match it.