SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Eric Feigl-Ding has fond memories of South Dakota. He spent part of his childhood in Mitchell, where his mom taught at Dakota Wesleyan University.
Feigl-Ding is now a noted epidemiologist and health economist, lauded for sounding an early alarm about the risk of a widespread and deadly COVID-19 pandemic. So when he looks at South Dakota, home of one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the world, and sees a state not following basic public health recommendations for reducing the spread of the virus, it's personal.
"I really worry for South Dakota," Feigl-Ding said in an Oct. 30 interview with Forum News Service. "We don’t want to talk about doomsday scenarios, we want to talk about how to avoid all that. But think of all the options: Political leadership? No. Local leadership? Patchy or none. And community organizing and community awareness and realization of this? It’s — right now — low."
South Dakota on Thursday, Nov. 5, marked its deadliest day of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, with health officials reporting 22 fatalities due to the virus, raising the state's death toll to 482.
Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., pointed a finger squarely at the state's political leadership, specifically Gov. Kristi Noem. Noem has roundly rejected calls for statewide restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including recommendations by public health officials for a masking mandate.
Feigl-Ding had a message for Noem: "It’s incredibly shameful you’re denying science and denying all we have learned from public health — whether it be epidemiology, virology, immunology, medicine — all these things, you’re denying all of them. In the name of what?
“Just put in these simple rules of following science. You don’t lose anything. It’s not shameful to follow science to save people’s lives."
Noem has said there are some times mask use is appropriate, but she has cast doubt on the benefits of a widespread, mandatory masking, calling the science behind its efficacy mixed.
"Throughout the pandemic, Governor Noem has let science, facts, and data drive her decision making," said Noem spokesman Ian Fury in an email response to Feigl-Ding's statement. "Her position on masking is nuanced, well-rounded, and takes all factors into account."
Feigl-Ding sputtered when asked whether there is mixed evidence for the anti-pandemic value of widespread public masking.
“These are well-established facts," he said. "So when you hand wave that, 'Oh, the science if mixed,' — the science is mixed on very pedantic things, like what is the precise amount cloth masks filter out."
Feigl-Ding also said he was worried the eventual costs of South Dakota not taking the pandemic seriously enough to stop it from raging across the state. A central part of not taking it seriously enough: not believing in science, or the recommendations of scientists — such as to wear a mask.
“The medicine that brought your medicines is the same medicine, and epidemiology and public health sciences, that is telling you to wear a mask," he said. "That’s the bottom line. You cannot cherry pick your reality.”