VERMILLION, S.D. — College students have returned to campuses across South Dakota, and so has the coronavirus.
As of Thursday, Sept. 2, the latest South Dakota Department of Health numbers show roughly 30% of the 5,688 people currently infected with the virus fall between the ages of 10 and 30. While the vast majority (over 70%) of the 230 people hospitalized as of Thursday, Sept. 2, are above the age of 50, only about 40% of college-age persons are vaccinated.
Moreover, the Delta variant has proven more damaging to younger people, including college-aged adults.
Last weekend, a University of South Dakota political science student, Kian Olson, went on oxygen after denying the virus as a government conspiracy, according to a report from the Mankato Free Press. As of Friday, OIson still needed oxygen, according to a website set up by his mother.
And it's a laissez-faire attitude amongst students in general that has scared college town mayors who note the university system still hasn't heeded warnings they used effectively last year, such as a mask mandate.
"They're a little bit hog-tied by the Board of Regents," said Brookings, S.D., Mayor Oepke "Ope" Niemeyer, on Thursday, Sept. 3, who said he worries case counts will only climb through September. "Nobody wants to go through this again. But this virus is so much more vicious."
Like many populations, colleges thought they'd turned the corner on the coronavirus.
At a meeting of the higher education cost-cutting task force in Spearfish last April, South Dakota State University President Barry Dunn championed his school's approach to testing, masking, and social distancing that allowed the school to continue in-person learning since the previous fall.
"I hope you're as proud of that as I am," said Dunn.
But no public university in South Dakota is — as of yet — requiring masks on campus.
On Thursday, Board of Regents spokeswoman Janelle Toman told Forum News Service in an email that there's been "no communication" from the BOR to "discourage masking." Masks continue to be "optional," said Toman.
But they're also scarce. Faculty from the state's six public universities who spoke on condition of anonymity with FNS said few students — including in lecture halls, holding up to 70 students — are choosing to wear masks.
"There is a general feeling of helplessness around campus as it relates to anything that might be even remotely perceived as left-leaning," one professor said, noting recent criticism college administrations and faculty have drawn from lawmakers in Pierre over curriculum.
Across the eastern border, campuses in the Minnesota State system will begin requiring weekly testing for unvaccinated students in October. In Sioux Falls, the state's largest private college, Augustana University, is requiring mask use in indoor areas.
In a back-to-school message, AU President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said the masking protocol "puts us in a better position" to stay in-person later this fall.
Some local officials are eyeing the calendar, as well.
In Brookings, councilmember Nick Wendell said business owners are cognizant that canceling homecoming two years in a row could hurt the hospitality industry, including bars and hotels.
"Most mainstream folks in Brookings are really that if we take actions to mitigate COVID and the delta variant, then we can assure that in-person learning and major events, like Hobo Days and football games, can continue," said Wendell.
Down in Vermillion, S.D., Mayor Kesley Collier-Wise helped launch the "Vaccinate Vermillion" campaign, offering a chance to win up to $5,000 in "Vermillion bucks" for getting vaccinated. Last week, Collier-Wise said roughly 100 students got the jab at an on-campus site.
"I don't think it's going to turn around someone who was previously against it," said Collier-Wise. "But it might help with someone on the fence."
So far case counts on campuses are relatively low, compared with the high community spread in most of South Dakota's counties. As of Aug. 28, there were 340 active infections across the six public campuses, including students, faculty and staff, according to DOH's dashboard.
Although one professor noted many students may just be avoiding getting tested. Moreover, the year has only begun. Greek life at USD will soon pick-up. This past Sunday, students packed an athletic center for a concert. And USD and SDSU's football teams open play Friday night.
"I don't want to go where we went last year," said Niemeyer, recollecting on angry school board meetings and frustration with the citywide mask mandate. "But we might have to."