SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota health officials acknowledged Tuesday that they include intensive care unit beds designed for infants in their total count of hospital beds available in the state — a key metric that the governor has used to defend her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 hospitalizations reached 607 on Tuesday, marking a new high for the fifth day in a row. The Department of Health reported that about 37% of general-care hospital beds and 32% of ICU beds are available.
State epidemiologist Josh Clayton said the number of neonatal ICU beds is much smaller than the total number of ICU beds, but did not immediately provide the number of neonatal ICU beds included in the count. The Department of Health receives a total count of ICU beds from hospitals and the number of neonatal ICU beds is not separated in the count, according to Clayton.
He also pointed out that adults could receive medical care in pediatric units if necessary.
Health officials have repeatedly guided people to the Department of Health's website that tracks the percentage of hospital beds available statewide. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has insisted the state is doing well by pointing out the percentage of COVID-19 hospitalized patients against total beds.
Hospital systems have scrambled to make beds and staff available for COVID-19 patients. But the hospital systems' capacity also depends on doctors and nurses being available to staff the beds.
Monument Health hospitals, which serve the western part of the state, announced Friday that it is “experiencing stressed capacity.” The system has hired more staff to help deal with the influx of patients, but said there is a nationwide shortage of nurses available. Many health care workers have also been infected from community spread.
“At this time, our limiting factor is not beds – it’s staffing,” said John Pierce, president of the Rapid City hospital.
Meanwhile, health officials are launching 10 surge testing sites around the state. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited one of the sites in Pierre and met with health officials.
Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said Adams encouraged people to take precautions like wearing a mask, washing their hands and staying 6 feet away from others, but did not push for mask mandates.
In Sioux Falls, the largest city in the state, the City Council will likely make a decision on a mask requirement in indoor public places on Tuesday night. But Mayor Paul TenHaken has said he would vote against a mask mandate if he's called upon to break a tie vote.
"I’m probably gonna get put in the hot seat,” TenHaken said. Eight council members will likely split evenly on the mandate, which carries a $50 fine for violations.
TenHaken believes the mandate would be unenforceable by police and ineffective in lowering local hospitalization rates, the Argus Leader reported.
The Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce opposes the ordinance, while local faith leaders have supported it.
Health officials reported three more COVID-19 deaths, bringing the state's death toll to 540.