SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota's top health official defended the state's mass testing plan that targets "higher risk" people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as COVID-19 claimed another of the state's seniors, Friday, May 15.

State officials on Thursday announced an aggressive, statewide four-week mass testing plan of residents of those facilities, to start next week.

Kim Malsam Rysdon, secretary of the state Department of Health, on Friday defended the state's approach compared to other states.

South Dakota was prioritizing those at senior care and assisted living homes because they're at a "higher risk" of getting seriously ill and dying from COVID-19, she said. Twenty nine of the state's 44 known COVID-19 deaths were among those in their 70s or older

"They are our top priority when it comes to mass testing, now that we have supply chain, and are seeing more supplies become available for testing," she said. "The intent of the testing we'll be doing in South Dakota is mass testing of all residents of nursing homes and assisted living, given their fragility and their vulnerability."

The state will then periodically do what's known as sentinel testing, picking random residents from those facilities for testing, she said.

"That's different than other states, and you'd need to ask those other states in terms of how they're moving forward with that particular process," she said in a daily media call on testing results posted by the state Department of Health.

The funding for the mass testing event will come from the $1.25 billion allocated to the state under the federal pandemic relief act, she said. Governor KristI Noem has called on the federal government to provide greater flexibility for the state on how those funds are spent.

New cases at beef plant, on reservation

The department's daily update listed another fatality from COVID-19, a female in the 80-plus age range in Minnehaha County. South Dakota added 95 new known COVID-19 cases on Friday, for a total of 3,887. There are 1,269 active cases in the state and 80 people are currently in the hospital with the illness. Both numbers of stayed fairly steady over the past week.

The state reported 15 new cases in Brown County, home to the DemKota Ranch Beef plant, which appears to be struggling with an outbreak of the illness. State Epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton said Friday 106 employees of the plant have tested positive for the virus and 58 have recovered. Brown County has 173 cases among its residents, the third highest among counties in the state.

The virus is also spreading in Oglala Lakota County, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The county's known cases doubled in a day, to six. The tribe remains in a standoff with Noem over checkpoints on state and federal roads on the reservation. Noem has said the checkpoints should be removed and the tribe has rejected the demand, although talks continue.

The state is reporting a noticeable uptick in the number of processed daily tests. State, clinical and private labs have processed 27,414 tests since the pandemic first hit South Dakota. The state logged 941 newly processed tests on Friday and has run more than 600 tests a day since Sunday.

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