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Friday's annual Queen of Peace gala postponed two months in advance, officials say it was best choice

The change was announced in early December, based on a modeled prediction of a surge in coronavirus cases.

Attendees dance during the annual Avera Queen of Peace Foundation gala, which took place Jan. 26, 2019, at the Highland Conference Center. The event raised more than $102,000 for community programming.
Submitted photo
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MITCHELL — Avera Queen of Peace officials in early December made a tough choice — they decided to postpone their annual gala, predicting a boom in COVID-19 infections in the Mitchell area.

Though the South Dakota Department of Health (SDDOH) was only reporting about 300-400 news infections each day when the call was made on Dec. 10, gala organizers and health officials agree the coronavirus scene now justified the postponement, as the state is reporting double the amount of daily cases.

“The gala is one of the biggest social events in town during the year,” said Molly Sutton, regional director of philanthropy for the Avera Foundation. “Usually we have about 225 to 250 people attend the event.”

Last year’s event was held virtually, as the state was coming off a spike in COVID-19 infections. Dr. Hillary Rockwell, chief medical officer of Avera Queen of Peace, said the decision to postpone this year’s gala so far in advance was based on making a prediction based on modeling.

“We've got a good group of people that are really watching things closely. In the beginning of December, we started to see that omicron across other countries and started to make its way into the United States,” Rockwell said. “At that point, the modeling changed and we thought [case numbers] are not going to drop down like we thought, it's probably going to continue, if not increase.”

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Though the SDDOH’s 14-day trend line currently shows a slight decrease in new confirmed cases over the past two weeks, it still labels community spread in all of South Dakota’s 66 counties as high.

In this 2015 file photo, Hilary Rockwell, an emergency medicine doctor at Avera Queen of Peace, is pictured. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Hilary Rockwell, current chief medical officer for Avera Queen of Peace, speaks with the Mitchell Republic in this 2015 file photo.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic

Making a call so far in advance could have resulted in a different outcome — if the state wouldn’t have seen a surge in new cases, the event would have been postponed for almost no reason. But Rockwell said had that been the case, the healthcare organization would’ve seen it as a tactical move to preserve commitments for the gala.

“It's hard because you're looking ahead a couple of months, but you have to make decisions for the vendors and the caterers and everything. They obviously need to know early too,” Rockwell said. “There's that chance that you call it off and everything changes, but I think the risk of it not being not being a good time to hold [the gala] definitely outweighs the potential.”

For the ninth annual gala, which was originally planned to be held Friday, Sutton said money raised would go toward Avera’s Caring for Life Fund, which assists with coverage of services unmet by a patient’s insurance.

Though Sutton is disappointed the event had to be postponed, she said Avera has received support from benefactors regarding the new gala’s date on Saturday, June 4.

“We're really grateful that we've heard back from quite a few of our benefactors, our supporters, and they really understand why we made that decision,” Sutton said. “The event usually raises somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000. So it really is a big fund-raising event — it does a lot of good.”

This year’s theme, “A Night in Nashville,” will hope to see employees, donors and members of the public from across Avera’s network join in Mitchell for a summer night of food, music and philanthropy.

Future updates on the event’s rescheduled date can be expected in the coming months.

Dunteman covers general and breaking news as well as crime in the Mitchell Republic's 17-county coverage area. He grew up in Harrisburg, and has lived in South Dakota for over 20 years. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 after earning his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at HDunteman@MitchellRepublic.com, or on Twitter @HRDunt.
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