SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It is up to South Dakotans to take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 this Thanksgiving, although gatherings could reverse a recent slowdown in new cases of the virus, South Dakota health officials said Wednesday, Nov. 25.

While South Dakota is still a state facing near-highs in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, the number of new positive cases and active cases have slipped in recent days — a decrease health officials attributed to behavior changes in the state's population. But they asked South Dakotans to be careful over the Thanksgiving holiday.

"All of those times when you're bringing people together, that is an opportunity for COVID-19 to spread," said Dr. Joshua Clayton, the state epidemiologist. "We ask that individuals do take precautions, whether it's at the bar, whether you're traveling to visit family or spending time with family this holiday weekend. Please make sure you're taking all possible measures to decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission."

South Dakota has no statewide mask mandate or other COVID-19 related restrictions, although some cities — Sioux Falls, Brookings, Mitchell and Huron — have approved some version of a mask mandate within their borders.

State health officials reported another 28 fatalities due to COVID-19 on Wednesday, raising the state's pandemic death toll to 849. Half of COVID-19 fatalities have been reported this month.

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Fifty people were reported hospitalized in South Dakota due to COVID-19, setting the daily total at 570, a number that has remained relatively flat over the past week.

There were 1,283 people who tested positive for COVID-19, the state Health Department said, raising the state's all-time total to 76,142 or about one in 12 South Dakotans.

The number of people who have tested positive and still carry an active infection dropped to 15,312, significantly below the all-time daily high of 19,360 set Nov. 15.

The sustained drop in active cases, one not replaced with new positive cases, could indicate South Dakota's COVID-19 surge has peaked. If so, pivotal role Thanksgiving holiday travel and gatherings could indeed prove pivotal for the direction of the pandemic in the state, as vaccines near deployment.

State Health Department Secretary Kim Malsam Rysdon said the state has been told to expect delivery of about 15,000 vaccines produced by Pfizer, down from an earlier expected amount of 24,000 vaccines, although she said the exact number continues to fluctuate.

The vaccine will first be given to those considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, followed by frontline health care workers and first responders, before becoming available to broader swaths of the general public.

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