SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The ranks of those in South Dakota hospitals for COVID-19 has dropped below 200 for the first time since late September, according to a Forum News Service analysis of state Department of Health data, Wednesday, Jan. 20.

There are now only 195 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state, illustrating how South Dakota is emerging from a deadly fall-winter surge of the virus that killed hundreds of state residents. Between Sept. 25 and today, COVID-19 killed 1,451 South Dakotans, more than four in five of the state's pandemic death toll of 1,667.

The state is making nation-leading progress at vaccinating its citizens against the virus, with 58,456 doses of the 2-dose vaccine administered as of Wednesday, or about 6.6% of the state, while 9,965 people have received both needed doses of either the Moderna- or Pfizer-made vaccine.

South Dakota ranks fifth among state and the District Columbia for the per-capita percentage of its population who have received at least one shot, according to a vaccination tracker by the Washington Post.

"Shots in arms is really what our goal is," said state Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon, on a media briefing call Wednesday. "I think the other thing to keep in mind is that we've had a great team at the Department of Health working every single day, all day, on vaccination logistics and working with our partners, who have also been great."

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Those partners including the state's largest health systems, including Sanford Health, Avera Health and Monument Health and other smaller systems.

Limited doses slow vaccination pace

South Dakota on Monday broadened the ranks of those eligible to received the vaccine to include those age 80 and over, high-risk patients getting dialysis, post-transplant or actively battling cancer, and residents in congregate settings, with plans to expand the eligibility group, dubbed 1D, to those age 65 and older as more vaccines become available.

The state opened up eligibility for the vaccine to South Dakotans based on age on the recommendations of the outgoing Trump administration, although it quickly became clear a boost in shipped doses from federal supplies wouldn't arrive as promised because no such stockpile existed. Still, state officials said they would press on.

The state continues to receive about 11,000 doses of the two-dose vaccines each week. At that delivery rate, vaccinating the 1D group, totalling about 266,000 people, could take months. Still, there are additional vaccines in the approval pipeline that could quickly change the math of when vaccines will be available to the broader population.

Clayton said there have been no indications of adverse reactions from the COVID-19 vaccinations. Two people in the state have died within 24 hours of receiving the vaccine, one in Pennington and one in Hutchinson counties, Clayton said. There was no indication their deaths had anything to do with getting the COVID-19 shots, and neither was ill with COVID-19 at the time. There has been no reporting of any spoiled vaccine doses, Malsam-Rysdon said.

No sign of contagious variant

State health officials have said there's no sign yet in South Dakota of a more contagious variant of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom and dubbed B.1.1.7. But the virus has been found in more than 30 countries and 20 states including South Dakota neighbors Minnesota and Wyoming.

The variant is expected to become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the US by March, said Dr. Josh Clayton, the state epidemiologist, on the Wednesday media call, emphasizing the need for swift, widespread vaccinations and continued steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, including masking, social distancing and hand-washing.

"Due to the higher rate of transmission, it will likely lead to more cases," Clayton said. "And so we do need to be cognizant it will increase the persons overall who need clinical care, as well as exacerbate the burden on the healthcare system."

Malsam-Rysdon said the state has no plans to alter its message regarding COVID-19 mitigation strategies due to the new virus variant. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has repeatedly rejected statewide measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as a mask mandate, despite the consensus of the scientific community and against the urging of public health officials and the state's largest health systems.

No new COVID-19 fatalities were reported Wednesday. State health officials reported another 277 people had tested positive for the virus, raising the state's number of those who have tested positive to 106,063, or about one in eight state residents.

There are 4,103 South Dakotans considered active cases, or those who have tested positive for the virus and are considered able to transmit the disease, down from an all-time high of 19,360 on Nov. 15.

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