Noem pushes emergency bills, but doctors say it’s not enough

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Gov. Kristi Noem on Thursday said she will pitch legislators on a series of 10 emergency bills to address what she believes will be a months-long fight against the coronavirus, but a leading doctor’s group says she is not currently doing enough to stop its spread.

The South Dakota Medical Association criticized Noem on Thursday for not ordering restaurants, bars and other non-essential businesses to close. It also said she should halt all elective procedures to conserve medical supplies.

The Republican governor has  resisted ordering businesses to close, instead pushing that decision to county and city officials. The Republican governor is trying to find an approach somewhere between the rosy predictions coming from president Donald Trump and a total lock down on activity. Noem is pitching a series of emergency bills to sustain battle against COVID-19 that she said could last “many months.”

The president has said he thinks the economy could be humming again by Easter, which is April 12. Noem disagrees.

“Those who might think that by Easter things will be back to normal, I don’t want to discourage them, but I want to be very clear and honest with them,” the governor said. “We can’t stop this virus. We can slow it down.”

Legislators will consider Noem’s proposals on Monday in a teleconference meeting.

The emergency legislation covers a range of issues, from possibly pushing local elections back until at least June to creating a fund of about $11 million for loans to small businesses affected by the pandemic.

“In an effort to provide my team the flexibility it needs to respond to these situations, I’m asking legislators to support a handful of measures that will enable the government to take action to protect public health and reflect the reality of social distancing,” Noem said in a statement.

The governor is also pushing to allow the Secretary of Health to put restrictions on group gatherings, add COVID-19 to the list of reasons the Department of Health can petition courts to close businesses, waive in-person teaching requirements and state assessments for schools, extend the grace period for driver’s license renewals, allow her to suspend certain statutes during emergencies, and grant counties the authority to pass emergency measures to close businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer said lawmakers would hold off on large budget adjustments until the state gets a better picture of the economic damage brought by the global pandemic.

The state reported five new positive tests on Thursday, raising its tally to 46 cases in six counties. Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said that so far, the health care system had not been overloaded but that it was preparing for a surge of patients.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems. 

The state’s health lab has been catching up with a backlog of tests, as commercial labs in the state came online this week. Noem said the state lab will be caught up by Monday.

But the governor’s approach will be tested. Noem said the state will have to transform to address the coming crisis, even as “economic activity in this state has dropped to almost nothing.” 

The 1,703 people who filed for unemployment last week will be just the beginning of widespread layoffs resulting from the pandemic. The unemployment call center is now seeing a similar number of filings every day, the governor said.

She has advised people to continue to stay at home so that the state’s health care system won’t get a massive inflow of patients all at once, hoping hospitals can treat patients in waves over weeks or months. If COVID-19 transmission can be slowed, it might give them enough beds, equipment and time to refuel.

Noem also said that tests returned negative for three women who were apprehended after escaping from the Women’s Prison in Pierre, where an inmate tested positive this week. She also acknowledged that U.S. Sen. John Thune was consulting with his doctor on Thursday after leaving Washington, D.C., on Wednesday because he felt ill.

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