The Brookings City Council approved Ordinance 20-029, which extends COVID-19 restrictions, including a mask mandate, during its meeting Tuesday, after listening to several local experts speak on how masks are lowering the spread of the disease. 

The council voted 4-2 on the extension, with councilors Joey Collins and Leah Brink voting “no.” Councilor Patty Bacon was absent.

The current restrictions were set to expire at the end of December.

City Manager Paul Briseno explained Ordinance 20-029, which regulates bars, restaurants, casinos, salons, barber shops, gyms, grocery stores and retail, including limiting capacity to 50 percent and requiring cleaning and spacing. Face coverings are also required for indoor businesses and indoor public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. The extension is for 60 days. 

Dr. Bonny Specker

Mayor Keith Corbett read a mayoral proclamation to honor Dr. Bonny Specker, epidemiologist at South Dakota State University, naming Dec. 15 as Dr. Bonny Specker Day.

She is being honored for her “exceptional example” during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Specker was first to speak during the public hearing on Ordinance 20-029. 

She thanked the council for the proclamation.

“I do think it’s important to try to educate the community about basic epidemiology, so that they can understand what’s going on with this pandemic a little bit better,” she said.

Specker presented the most recent Brookings County data on several slides. 

“The number of cases per day peaked in November, and it’s been declining since Thanksgiving. However, it’s important to note that the number of cases is still above substantial spread,” Specker said.

Substantial spread is defined as 100 new cases in the previous seven days per 100,000 population, she said.

“For Brookings County, that translates into 34 cases per week, or about seven cases per day,” Specker said.

That’s our target, if we want to get out of the substantial spread and move into moderate spread, she said.

Brookings County still has the lowest number of cases out of the 10 most populous South Dakota counties.

Brookings County “was in the middle of the pack at the time the mask mandate passed in September, when the increase in Brookings started to flatten out, compared to the other counties,” Specker said.

“Fortunately, the rates are currently dropping in the majority of the counties, but we are not out of it yet as all 10 counties are still in substantial spread,” she said.

“Most of the counties with mask mandates prior to Dec. 1 have declined to a greater degree than those counties without a mask mandate,” Specker aid.

“Brookings County, which passed that mask mandate in September, has the lowest rate of newest cases per day per population among these 10 counties for the entire month of November, which was when South Dakota has its peak number of cases,” Specker said.

Continuing the current ordinance will let Brookings meet some of the federal recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Harvard Global Health Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, adding restrictions do work and persistence is needed. 

“Things are not normal; we are in the middle of one of the worst pandemics this country’s seen in over 100 years,” Specker said.

Jason Merkley 

Jason Merkley is president and CEO of Brookings Health System and said his hospital is going through some stressful times, saying their capacity and ability to care for individuals has been tested.

He said there are “cautiously optimistic trends” with fewer hospitalizations. They are still seeing a significant number, “but less than previously.” The challenge is to manage the numbers along with everything else that comes with the winter season, he said.

They have to remain vigilant, coming off the Thanksgiving weekend and with Christmas and New Year’s arriving, he said, recommending the council “stay the course” on the ordinance and mask mandate.

“We feel like it’s making a difference,” Merkley said.

Clinic directors

Patrick Siegling is clinic director of Avera Medical Group.

He thanked the council for its early actions in dealing with COVID-19 and continued diligence.

The numbers are improving, but there are thousands of individuals in the state being monitored at home, who might otherwise be in the hospital. Hundreds more are in general medical beds, instead of an Intensive Care Unit, Siegling said.

He praised the people on the front lines, calling them the “most important resource.” These are the people who are with the COVID patients, who want to live, “but ultimately succumb to COVID.”

There is hope, he said.

“We have improving numbers; we have vaccines that are coming to Brookings County,” Siegling said.

“We’re gonna make it through this with a healthier community on the back end,” Siegling said.

Amy Hockett is clinic director of Sanford Brookings.

“We recommend to continue with that mask mandate,” she said.

The second week of January will show infection rates during the Christmas break, she said, noting the SDSU students would be coming back then.

“The health care workers are doing everything they can. And it does hit you personally when you’re working with some of these patients,” Hockett said.

Schools

Brookings School District Superintendent Klint Willert said the district has a plan in place that emphasizes best practices. That includes things “that we know work,” including physical distancing, wearing masks, personal hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting for a healthy learning environment.

“We know that those practices have worked in the school district,” Willert said, and they will continue to provide a safe learning environment. 

As of Tuesday evening, the district had seven active cases and 28 individuals in quarantine for close contact, he said.

“We are committed to many of the same things that the council is,” Willert said, including following state and CDC guidelines and “encouraging everyone to practice appropriate personal responsibility.”

Daniel Scholl, vice president for research and economic development at SDSU, said the university successfully navigated the fall semester.

They conducted nearly 4,000 COVID-19 test among students, he said. Recently, positives are 10% or below.

“The declining positivity rate is the product of the actions that we’ve taken together,” he said.

They are now planning for the spring semester. Testing will be available, and policies will remain in place, Scholl said.

The efforts that have been working, such as masks, hygiene, and low density of people with low contact, should be observed, he said.

Council comments

Councilor Nick Wendell said there was a sharp decline in the number of tests reported in South Dakota, from more than 4,000 per day to just over 2,000, and he asked if that has anything to do with the trends being seen.

Siegling and Hockett said their clinics have seen no noticeable decrease in testing. 

Specker said with the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, “there’s gonna be a lag reporting results,” and Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be low reporting days, too.

Merkley agreed there is a lag, with not as much demand for testing.

Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne wanted to know how to increase testing.

Specker said some people don’t want to get tested because they don’t want to quarantine until they get results back. 

“The turnaround is really short now,” she said.

The group that isn’t coming in as much as they should are the close contacts; it’s important to get them in for tests, she said.

Councilor Leah Brink asked if the testing protocols have changed; can an asymptomatic person easily get a test locally?

Hockett said Sanford does test asymptomatic people.

Public comments

Bradley Walker spoke against extending the ordinance and the different phases of the city’s COVID plan, including Phase 4, returning to the “new normal.”

“Mask wearing is not normal,” Walker said, adding neither was wearing a mask while driving, walking down the street, or having your picture taken.

Walker said positive cases have increased since the mask mandate went into effect. 

A small fraction of the people who contract COVID-19 are hospitalized, and a very small fraction are dying from it, he said.

“People are not dropping like flies, like the mainstream media would lead you to believe,” he said.

Dr. David Meyer has spoken in favor of masks in the past.

“With the vaccines coming on the scene, I just want to implore that we’re almost there; we’re almost there,” he said.

He asked the council “to stay the course.”

There will come a time to drop the ordinance, Meyer said, but it isn’t now.

“Vaccines are coming to help us, but we still need the masks, and I implore you to vote to continue the ordinance,” he said.

Councilor Ope Niemeyer referenced Walker’s comment that there was one death before the mandate and there are now more than 20.

“But if you look at the numbers on the other cities that didn’t do a mask mandate until just recently, our death rate is quite a bit less,” Niemeyer said.

“I’m glad that we have more citizens that are alive than we could’ve if we didn’t have this mask mandate to begin with,” he said.

“Like Dr. Meyer said, we’re almost there,” Niemeyer said, noting the vaccine could be available in the spring for the general public. “We can move on and put this all behind us.”

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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