As America grapples with another surge of COVID-19, rural areas are being hit the hardest and are suffering the worst impacts, despite having lower populations and density. North and South Dakota have felt the brunt of the spike in America’s heartland. North Dakota now has the worst coronavirus mortality rate in the world, with a rate of 18.2 deaths per million people, and South Dakota has the highest per capita COVID-19 rate of any state in the country.

As our nation’s least populous places are pummeled by spiking infection rates, the rural health care system is being pushed beyond its limits trying to meet the rising need for care.

Where does this failed response stem from? Well, it starts at the top.

South Dakota’s Governor Kristi Noem has shown no sign of budging from her hands-off approach to the pandemic, and refuses to mandate public health safety measures while the virus grows steadily into a full-blown public health emergency. Instead, she is downplaying the effectiveness of masks and has said those “who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into wearing one.” Rather than being “shamed into wearing a mask,” she should feel the shame of allowing the virus to run rampant in her state and face the families that have had to suffer the loss of their loved ones.

There is already ample speculation Gov. Noem is running for a national position, and her 2024 campaign already started. She tied herself closely to the failed Trump campaign, disappearing from South Dakota to take political trips to MaineNew Hampshire, and Washington, DC. In an attempt to gain power and stature for herself, she showed us that she just doesn’t care about her own community.

Earlier this week, Noem told South Dakotans to continue to gather and not wear masks. She stoked the flames of partisanship and disinformation, claiming the media was already trying to “cancel Christmas.” Well, Governor there are more than 819 families who have had a loved one die from COVID-19 that will likely have the worst Christmas they’ve ever experienced because you didn’t step up and be an example of stopping the spread of the disease.

While Gov. Noem plays personal politics, her constituents suffer from the consequences. According to the COVID-19 Tracking Project, at close to 60 percent, South Dakota has the highest seven-day positivity rate in the country. There have been 2,047 new cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, meaning that roughly one out of every 49 people has tested positive for the virus. And this is only going to get worse as Gov. Noem continues her crusade against common-sense measures like mask-wearing and limiting gatherings.

In North Dakota, Governor Doug Burgum finally changed his course, issuing a state-wide mask mandate. However, this effort is too little too late, as hospitalizations in North Dakota rose to 332, more than double what they were a month ago. North Dakotans have been feeling the effects of COVID-19 for a long time, and they’ve suffered the consequences of his reluctance to lead. In early November, the North Dakota Department of Health reported there were only 12 open ICU beds in the entire state. About one in 12 North Dakota residents have now been infected with the virus; nearly one in 1,000 have died.

To top this all off, rural communities don’t have health care workers to spare. There has been a chronic shortage of physicians and nurses in rural communities that preceded the pandemic and rural health care and critical access hospitals have been underfunded for decades. The shortage of providers has never been more apparent as when Burgum announced that health care workers who tested positive for the virus but did not show symptoms could still report to work in COVID-19 units. But he didn’t bother to talk to the ND Nurses Association before announcing it.  Does that make sense?  One of the very groups of people who are risking their own health to help others wasn’t even allowed to weigh in on this edict? By not quarantining, COVID-positive health care workers risk spreading the virus even further, especially during the holiday season. And frankly, North Dakota can’t handle an increase in cases. And their own families shouldn’t be placed at higher risk than they already have been.

Gov. Noem’s inability to accept reality continues to put South Dakotas at risk. She has tried to make her approach to the pandemic synonymous with “freedom” and “individual rights”. Gov. Burgum likes to tell us about “personal responsibility” in limiting spread here in North Dakota. But all their anti-science rhetoric has done is put South and North Dakotans at greater risk of infection. Leaders need to lead.  They both are incredibly popular Governors who could set aside their approval ratings during a pandemic and do something meaningful to end these horribly record breaking days for our families and friends.  They need to value American lives more than their own political aspirations. Folks in the Dakotas are dying for their leadership.

Tessa Gould