SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A White House COVID-19 task force has recommended South Dakota officials "aggressively promote" masking and social distancing, calling the state's COVID-19 situation "deeply concerning."

The recommendations come from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which issued state-by-state COVID-19 recommendations dated Sunday, Sept. 6, obtained by ABC News.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem's office this week refused a request from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newspaper for a copy of a similar report, issued Aug. 30. The White House also turned down the same request.

The White House summary finds South Dakota is one of 22 states considered a "red zone" for COVID-19, based on the number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the previous week, finding it as the second highest rate in the nation.

The state's high test positive rate also puts it as one of seven states in a "red zone" for that issue, the task force said. South Dakota has seen a daily test positivity rate above 10 percent since. Aug. 16, as cases counts surged.

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"Additional cases in institutes of higher education are noteworthy," the task force's South Dakota summary said, highlighting new cases at the state's two largest universities, South Dakota State University in Brookings and the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

The task force issued a broad range of recommendations that included scaling up public health messaging across the state, and boosting testing capacity, including at the state's public health laboratory.

"Continued increasing case counts and remarkably high test positivity in the context of insufficient testing levels are deeply concerning," the task force wrote. "Aggressively promote social distancing and use of face coverings, particularly in indoor settings."

SD officials defends COVID-19 response

Noem has routinely downplayed the value of masks, not wearing them herself in public settings, and saying the science is mixed on their use. Forum News Service askedNoem's office if she planned to change her approach to masks based on the White House task force's recommendations.

Noem spokesman Ian Fury responded to say the governor's focus remains on the still-low hospitalization numbers for COVID-19 patients.

"Since the start of the pandemic, Gov. Noem has provided South Dakotans with up-to-date science, facts, and data and trusted them to use that information to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved-ones," he said in an email. "We will not be changing that approach."

Also on Thursday, Sept. 10, state health officials defended South Dakota's approach, in a regularly scheduled call with reporters.

They pointed out the state has an ongoing public health messaging campaign to encourage steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing. And the state is meeting its goal of running 44,233 tests a month, or the equivalent of testing 5% of the state's population, said Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of the state Department of Health,

"We are working on some specific strategies right now to increase testing," she said, highlighting the state's offer of university mass testing and ongoing sentinel testing at long-term care facilities. "We've got a lot of different strategies at play. I'm confident we will see that testing goal exceeded this month, by hopefully the largest number."

COVID-19 has surged in South Dakota over the past month, with both daily active cases and hospitalizations more than doubling since the start of August.

The South Dakota Department of Health Thursday reported four new deaths in the state due to COVID-19, raising the pandemic death toll to 177.

The department reported an additional 263 COVID-19 cases in the state on Thursday, while 237 people ill with the disease are newly recovered.

There were 2,456 South Dakotans still considered actively sick with COVID-19, with 83 people in South Dakota hospitals due to the disease. State, university, health system and public testing labs processed an additional 1,361 tests, at a daily test positivity rate of 19.3%.

Still, hospitalization rates remain low. COVID-19 patients are using 3% of available hospital beds, as well as 3% of intensive care unit beds. Ventilators, crucial lifesaving equipment for this respiratory illness, also remain low, with only 5% in use by COVID-19 patients.

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