SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota's three largest health systems are disputing claims from some patients they're running out of room at their hospitals amid a near worst-in-the-nation COVID-19 surge in the state.

Sanford Health, Avera Health and Monument Health representatives have all gone on the record in recent days to insist they're still well equipped with hospital beds, and staff to manage them.

"I can tell you that right now we are not in a crisis mode, which is good," said Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs for Monument Health, based in Rapid City. "l We hope it stays that way, but we are prepared.”

Many South Dakotans, armed with limited specific information about how their local hospitals are doing amid the state's sustained COVID-19 surge, have looked to social media for answers about the situation in the state's hospitals, finding sometimes alarming posts from patients and caregivers about limited hospital capacity.

One likely reason: There is currently no way for South Dakotans to know how many beds the state's three largest health systems have, where they are, how many are available, and how many are filled by patients sick with COVID-19.

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The state doesn't regularly disclose those numbers. Neither do the state's health systems, whose leaders say the numbers change constantly and they don't want to give the public a perhaps confusing view of the situation.

Hospital bed data, normally not a pressing question among anyone other than health professionals, has increasingly become of widespread concern to South Dakotans as COVID-19 accelerates its spread across the state

South Dakota has set near-daily records in the last for active cases and the number of people hospitalized due to the virus. As of Tuesday, state health officials reported 3,684 tested individuals still considered sick with COVID-19 and 211 hospitalized, slightly lower than earlier in the week.

Still, daily active COVID-19 cases have doubled in the past month. The number of those in the hospital doubled in the last two weeks. South Dakota is second to only North Dakota in the daily rise of new COVID-19 cases per-capita over the previous week, according to tracking by the New York Times.

Hospital data a political question

The hospital availability question is an unusually political one in South Dakota. Kristi Noem, the state's Republican governor, has repeatedly pointed to the state's open hospital beds as one reason she has consistently refused to encourage or implement public health measures, such as a masking mandate.

Noem's approach, which bucks recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has earned her national plaudits and scorn, particularly as South Dakota has earned national headlines for its COVID-19 situation.

The state Department of Health provides aggregate percentages of hospital beds used in the states on its COVID-19 information page. But doesn't post the number of beds, or list where those beds available — a key question when an open bed bed isn't necessarily easy to fill from, say, a facility on the other side of the state or one that may be part of a different health system.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, center, in a meeting with leaders of Sanford Health and Avera Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, March 17. (Submitted / Office of Gov. Kristi Noem)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, center, in a meeting with leaders of Sanford Health and Avera Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, March 17. (Submitted / Office of Gov. Kristi Noem)

State health officials, facing multiple questions from the media about hospital beds, disclosed on Thursday the most specific data DOH officials have disclosed on the the state's overall capacity.

The state has 2,397 hospital beds, with 1,043 of those beds available, Kim Malsam Rysdon, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Health, said on a regularly scheduled COVID-19 media call.

That hospital capacity includes 101 available intensive care units beds as well as 252 available ventilators. Thirty five hospitals in the state had COVID-19 patients, and four of those hospitals had COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

But Malsam-Rysdon said health officials weren't aware of any patients being sent out of state. "That's a rumor, not true," she said.

A Sioux Falls TV station quickly found a COVID-19 patient who had indeed been transported out of state.

Health systems scramble to reassure public

But health systems leaders do acknowledge they're dealing with a swell of new patients and are implementing surge plans to cope with the rush.

The new patients include a growing number of people infected with COVID-19, a late-year rush of people who may have avoided care earlier this year, and a swell in the usual ebb and flow of patients, said Dr. Michael Wilde of Sanford Health.

"There are times we're more busy than others, and this is one of those times we're more busy," he said. "We're in a busy time right now, but if you look back year after year, we do tend to be busy about this time of the year."

A view of the Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center campus from an Avera helicopter as part of their Careflight service. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A view of the Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center campus from an Avera helicopter as part of their Careflight service. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The surge plans mean that while hospitals may be getting crowded and under pressure, they're not exactly full.. But they give the appearance the health systems are running out of space as the systems juggles a large influx of new patients.

The hospital plans include sometimes transferring patients to other system facilities — including some that are outside South Dakota — or keeping patients at their local hospitals instead of bringing them to Sioux Falls, said representatives from Sioux Falls-based health systems Sanford and Avera.

"Sometimes everybody thinks that everybody has to come to Sioux Falls and that’s the best place, but that’s not the case," said Dr. Chad Thury of Sioux Falls-based Avera Health, to a meeting of the Downtown Sioux Falls Rotary on Tuesday.

"Sometimes going from a critical access hospital to Sioux Falls is not necessary," he said, adding that Avera has more than 30 hospitals throughout the region. "So we’ll send them wherever those patients need to go within our system to try to keep those beds available that we can throughout the system."