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Avera Queen of Peace staff calmed by decrease in cases, increase in vaccinations

After the COVID-19 pandemic walloped Davison County in October, November and December, cases and hospitalizations have declined during the last month. Davison County accumulated more than 2,300 of its 2,919 total cases from October to December. Since Jan. 1, however, the county has seen 193 cases.

Avera Queen of Peace employees wait for a parade by Longfellow Elementary School on Wednesday in Mitchell. (Nick Sabato / Republic)
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Precautions are still in place and awareness of the threat of a second wave is high. But for medical personnel at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, perpetual tension has been replaced by calmness.

After the COVID-19 pandemic walloped Davison County in October, November and December , cases and hospitalizations have declined during the last month. Davison County accumulated more than 2,300 of its 2,924 total cases from October to December. Since Jan. 1, however, the county has seen 198 cases.

Meanwhile, as active cases dwindled to 37 Friday, AQOP currently does not have any COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit and only one person currently in isolation.

“An experience like we’ve been through — I feel like we’re forever changed,” said Kristi Riggs, AQOP director of Medical/Outpatient Treatment Center/ICU/Swing Bed. “You can’t go through what we’ve endured and not have long-lasting effects. We’re always going to remember faces and tears and suffering that we witnessed. It’s been a tough journey and this is going to live with us forever. You’re forever changed physically, mentally and emotionally. It’ll always be in our minds.”

AQOP emergency physician Hilary Rockwell attributed the decline in cases to mitigation techniques such as masking social distancing . Davison County had 873 active cases of COVID-19 when the city of Mitchell implemented a mask mandate on Nov. 17 and active cases plummeted to 158 within a month. The county had four deaths as of Oct. 21, but experienced 45 deaths in the ensuing 50 days. There have been eight deaths due to COVID-19 since Dec. 15.


The mandate was allowed to expire on Jan. 27 by the Mitchell City Council , but some businesses continue to require masks and the Corn Palace extended its mask mandate through March 13.

Such measures have also diminished influenza and pneumonia cases in the county. February typically marks the peak of influenza cases in South Dakota, but there have been 20 positive cases in the state and eight hospitalizations, while there have been no cases of influenza in Davison County this year, according to Rockwell.

“Because of all the things we’re doing to prevent the spread of COVID, we’re preventing the spread of influenza,” Rockwell said. “Influenza is less contagious than COVID, so masking, distancing, staying home when sick and washing surfaces, we’re seeing an unintended benefit.”

Dwindling cases and increased vaccinations have allowed staff members to work more at ease during the last month. According to the South Dakota Department of Health, Davison County has vaccinated 2,423 people thus far and 1,356 have been completely vaccinated, including roughly 70% of hospital staff members.

While AQOP has not reduced any of its requirements on personal protective equipment, vaccinated nurses have experienced reduced fear of contracting the virus, and more importantly, it has diminished the concern of passing the virus to family members after work.

“As we see less and less of it in the community and in the hospital, our shoulders are feeling lighter. It’s refreshing,” Riggs said. “To not have that constant fear — not that it’s completely gone, it’s subsided a great deal. When you’re not afraid the minute you get home and tell your family not to come near me until I shower and have new clothes on — it’s refreshing.”

As vaccinations become more readily available to the general public , Rockwell warns mitigation practices must persist in hopes of preventing a second surge. Although South Dakota deaths dropped in January, more than 100,000 people died due to COVID-19 in the United States, making it the deadliest month of the pandemic.

COVID-19 projection models — Avera uses reproductive value, which determines how infectious a disease is — have shown inaccuracy in the past, as South Dakota never experienced a statewide surge in the spring and summer as initially predicted . Fall predictions proved accurate as the state was ravaged, ranking atop the nation in cases and deaths per capita for nearly two months. But South Dakota was spared from the post-Christmas and New-Year’s surges that left large portions of the country reeling.


A more transmissible strain of the virus that initiated in the United Kingdom was first detected in the United States 45 days ago and has already spread to 34 states , per the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, but Avera has not reported any such cases in South Dakota.

However, on Thursday, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci stated that by April, “virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.”

“If we get to 1 or higher, we get the exponential spread and when we were at our surge, we were 1.17 or even close to 1.2,” Rockwell said. “Right now we’re at 0.9 and we get below 1, then cases should drop. We did get as low as 0.7 a couple weeks ago. If we get above 1, we’re probably going to be blowing the horn that we’ve got to up our mitigation. We’re watching that and some of these variants and the positive rate that we’ve got.”

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUS
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