SEVERE WX : Winter Weather Advisory View Alerts

South Dakota is grappling with the nation's highest positivity rate. This Covid-19 widow wants a mask mandate

The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging North and South Dakota, as Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) is ignoring known safety measures that have helped curb Covid-19's spread in other places. CNN's Lucy Kafanov speaks to a woman who lost her husband to the virus.

Posted: Nov 18, 2020 6:00 AM
Updated: Nov 18, 2020 6:00 AM

Chris and John Bjorkman bought their home in De Smet, South Dakota, less than a year ago. The couple, who celebrated their 39th anniversary last June, thought they would spend the rest of their lives together on the idyllic land, home to the "Little House on the Prairie" Laura Ingalls homestead.

The small town, home to just over 1,000 people, according to the 2019 census estimates, is about 100 miles northwest of Sioux Falls.

As the couple renovated their new home, they took caution to avoid the Covid-19 virus that swept the world into a pandemic in March. Despite keeping mostly to themselves, they both tested positive in September.

"We wore masks all the time. We wore masks, we stayed home," Chris Bjorkman told CNN. "We were more worried about me. I have several underlying conditions. He didn't."

But she survived. Her husband, a healthy 66-year-old, did not.

"He yelled that he had fallen," Bjorkman recalled. As she went to help him, he told her he couldn't breathe.

She took John to a hospital, but he was transported out of state just a few hours later. "He was flown out to Marshall, Minnesota, because they said the Sioux Falls hospital was full at the time."

John Bjorkman is one of 644 people who have died in South Dakota -- where the per capita Covid-19 rate leads above any other state in the country. The seven-day positivity rate is also alarmingly high -- at nearly 60%, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project -- higher than any other state in the US, which has seen more than 11 million people infected and over 247,000 killed by the virus.

The South Dakota governor's office disputed CTP's positivity rate, instead saying theirs is just over 21%, according to the state's Department of Health data. South Dakota does not provide the number of new tests that were administered in a single day, making it impossible to tabulate a 7-day average and get a complete view on the positivity rate.

"When they flew me over here, I literally didn't know ... if I would see the next day," John said through tears in a video call shortly after being transported. "It makes me nervous. Literally, it could be December, January, before I get up, play a little bit with my grandson."

While John fought for his life in the hospital, his wife tried to speed up the renovations at home, so that he would have a comfortable place to recover. He had been given Remdesivir and started to get better. He was even taken back to South Dakota as his condition improved.

He died on October 20.

"I never thought he would not make it," Bjorkman said holding back tears. "I always thought he was going to come home ... I knew he might be in a wheelchair or something, but I just wanted him to come home."

She now holds onto her memories of her late husband as she sits in what was supposed to be their home.

"I just miss him, I miss all the things that he did," Bjorkman said. "He was a very positive person ... He was always happy, ready to go, ready to conquer the day. I mean, that was just John."

Bjorkman said her husband was always helping people, especially the children at the schools where he worked.

"When he was in education, he was always going out of his way for kids and stuff. Finding them tennis shoes or glasses if their parents couldn't afford it," she told CNN. "He was a good person."

Bjorkman told CNN she's speaking out because she knows if John were alive, he would still try to help people by telling them how deadly this virus can be.

"People need to take this very serious. And a lot of people don't, and we just need some kind of leadership in this state to help us get through this time," she said. "We have no one telling us what to do and I think some people need that ... They need to be told to wear a mask."

"People need to wear masks and they just need to social distance," Bjorkman said people should limit their interactions, social distance and wear a mask because "you don't know who is gonna survive it."

South Dakota has highest positivity rate in the US

More than 62,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and over 3,500 have been hospitalized, according to the state's Covid-19 website.

But as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, rural areas are being hit the hardest despite lower populations and density.

According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rural Americans are dying at rates 3.45 times higher than Americans living in metropolitan areas.

As of November 13, according to the CDC's data, the seven-day death rate per 100,000 people for Americans living in large metro areas is 0.2, while in rural areas it is 0.69. The national average seven-day death rate is 0.33.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem never issued a stay-at-home order, and as people continue to get sick and die, says she will not mandate mask wearing.

Over the summer, the state hosted thousands at the Sturgis motorcycle rally, which has since been linked to dozens of cases of the virus and at least one death as well as a mostly maskless Trump rally in July.

Gov. Noem's office did not respond to a request by CNN on Monday and declined to join "New Day" for an on-air interview that morning.

A few weeks ago, while attending a Trump rally, the governor claimed people in her state were happy. "The only reason you know who I am today is because the liberals have been busy kicking me in the head for all the decisions I've made for my people in South Dakota. But let me tell you, my people are happy. They're happy because they're free."

Frontline health care workers say hospitals reaching capacity

Although the governor feels no mask mandate is needed, health care workers told CNN they believe that could be the only way to curb the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Former US Air Force veteran Dr. Shannon Emry wants a mask mandate to help mitigate the rapid increase in cases she's seen.

"Our governor has been misleading her constituents. From the start, she has downplayed the dangers of the virus, downplayed the importance of wearing a mask and it has really undermined the people's trust in their medical community," Emry said. "And by doing that, she's putting people in danger."

Emry said the lack of restrictions has left the state powerless to control the deadly virus.

"Our hospital systems across the state are already at capacity, are already at this critical state," she said. "The health care workers are obviously exhausted and the devastating thing for them is that we don't see an end in sight. There's not a stop date, there's not a timeline."

Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse, told CNN's Alisyn Camerota on "New Day" on Monday morning that she's seeing many people in her state in denial over their Covid-19 diagnoses, and are often angry in the last moments of their lives when they could be talking to loved ones.

"Even if positive results come back, some people just don't believe it," she said, adding that they sometimes will insist it's something else like the flu, a cold or even lung cancer.

"It's hard and sad because every hospital, every nurse, every doctor in this state is seeing the same things. These people get sick in the same way, you treat them in the same way, they die in the same way. And then you do it over again," Doering told CNN. "It just makes you mad and sad and frustrated."

Doering wants people to recognize the cost and the severity of this virus in South Dakota and take steps to protect themselves so that they don't end up in the hospital, where "it might be too late."

Update: After this story published, the governor's office disputed the 60% positivity rate from the COVID Tracking Project. This story has been updated with information about how South Dakota calculates the state's positivity rate.

Terre Haute
Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 39° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 28°
Robinson
Cloudy
33° wxIcon
Hi: 41° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 25°
Indianapolis/Eagle Creek
Cloudy
32° wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 24°
Paris
Cloudy
31° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 24°
Mattoon/Charleston
Cloudy
31° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 21°
Terre Haute
Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 39° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 28°
Terre Haute
Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 28°
Cloudy, Cold, Wednesday Snow
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1104763

Reported Deaths: 20744
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook4460359268
DuPage710701173
Will59914891
Lake54851924
Kane47289710
Winnebago26813416
Madison25429480
St. Clair23107451
McHenry22290260
Champaign15937106
Peoria15535252
Sangamon14956245
McLean13590173
Tazewell12346253
Rock Island12229308
Kankakee11733187
Kendall1003981
LaSalle9807250
Macon9005182
Vermilion7806117
DeKalb769995
Adams7564129
Williamson6373119
Boone566580
Whiteside5441175
Clinton518886
Coles480486
Ogle471973
Knox4712147
Grundy454154
Effingham436571
Jackson431670
Henry412078
Marion4093113
Macoupin402997
Franklin394671
Livingston381170
Randolph380274
Monroe369571
Stephenson364677
Jefferson3570105
Woodford335470
Morgan332393
Logan317959
Montgomery316654
Lee314576
Christian306279
Bureau305985
Fayette296853
Perry279662
Iroquois263058
Fulton262650
Jersey230961
Lawrence220730
McDonough220051
Saline209254
Douglas205734
Union204032
Shelby202435
Crawford183635
Cass179531
Bond178524
Pike160648
Warren160444
Richland157546
Hancock155635
Wayne154843
Clark153234
Jo Daviess152725
Washington149826
Edgar149452
Carroll147633
Moultrie141828
White141333
Ford140851
Clay134040
Greene128443
Johnson125715
Wabash121915
Mason119841
Piatt119718
De Witt119228
Mercer119130
Cumberland111827
Massac107133
Jasper106115
Menard92310
Hamilton73217
Marshall70915
Schuyler65017
Brown62611
Pulaski6253
Stark50120
Edwards4789
Henderson46816
Calhoun4504
Scott4081
Alexander4067
Gallatin3974
Putnam3592
Hardin3128
Pope2583
Unassigned1110
Out of IL340

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 613228

Reported Deaths: 9728
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion846851338
Lake45676687
Allen32980552
Hamilton29649315
St. Joseph27531382
Elkhart24478345
Vanderburgh19610250
Tippecanoe18108141
Johnson15191295
Porter14944169
Hendricks14485250
Madison11044222
Clark10811144
Vigo10795181
Monroe9458113
Delaware9170134
LaPorte9145164
Howard8292144
Kosciusko810183
Warrick680299
Hancock6782104
Bartholomew6640100
Floyd6507110
Wayne6177162
Grant6027116
Dubois558680
Boone556468
Morgan548695
Henry511464
Marshall506984
Cass486964
Dearborn486545
Noble475659
Jackson427747
Shelby420781
Lawrence393780
Clinton375044
Gibson374459
Harrison353045
DeKalb349864
Montgomery347654
Knox336239
Miami324544
Steuben315046
Whitley311126
Wabash305851
Adams302836
Ripley300546
Putnam298950
Huntington294860
Jasper291734
White275143
Daviess271774
Jefferson266238
Decatur249583
Fayette248648
Greene242262
Posey241028
Wells236951
LaGrange230062
Scott226839
Clay224332
Randolph215248
Jennings200636
Sullivan193533
Spencer193022
Washington188023
Fountain184927
Starke176444
Jay168623
Owen167637
Fulton164830
Orange160935
Carroll159715
Rush156318
Perry155929
Vermillion149734
Franklin149333
Tipton133133
Parke13088
Pike118526
Blackford111822
Pulaski97837
Newton92021
Brown88335
Benton87110
Crawford8099
Martin74913
Warren6857
Switzerland6695
Union6297
Ohio4977
Unassigned0376