SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota may prove a relatively easy target for a new, more contagious COVID-19 variant that has been discovered in neighboring states, and is expected to blanket the nation by March, according to a Forum News Service analysis.

Public health officials are sounding an alarm about a new COVID-19 virus variant, first found in the United Kingdom and dubbed B117, that is even more contagious than the current virus that has soaked into South Dakota since March 2020, killing about one in 500 state residents.

The more contagious, potentially more potent virus amplifies the need to take steps to reduce the spread of the virus, such as by restricting gatherings, social distancing and wearing masks, and public health measures to that effect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Dakota's vulnerability against a more contagious COVID-19 variant is three-fold: A lack of state and local public health measures, a relative lull in the pandemic situation and a slow trickle of vaccine doses.

South Dakota has yet to detect the virus in the state, but it remains vigilant, said Dr. Joshua Clayton, the state epidemiologist, in a Wednesday, Jan. 27, media briefing. The B117 strain has been identified in 28 states including Minnesota and Wyoming, the CDC says.

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"One of the things we continue to do is conduct surveillance of new variants of COVID-19," Clayton said. "To date, we have not identified that UK strain in the state of South Dakota, and continue to conduct surveillance and collaboration with CDC."

COVID-19 restrictions unlikely

While public health experts and agencies cite a growing body of evidence of the efficacy of public health measures such as restrictions on gatherings and mask mandates, Gov. Kristi Noem has flatly rejected any statewide measures.

A handful of the state's cities have advocated some version of a mask mandate, but most have not. Democrats in the state Legislature have recently proposed a statewide mask mandate, but the measure is likely dead on arrival in a Republican-dominated Statehouse.

For their part, South Dakota health officials have said they don't intend to change their anti-COVID-19 messaging, but said people should redouble their efforts with the regular recommendations: wash hands, wear a mask, social distance, stay home if sick and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"The same things that protect against the original virus will help protect against this variant, but people will need to be more vigilant," said Bonny Specker, an epidemiologist at South Dakota State University who retired last week. "Wearing a mask in the presence of other people is important, whether voluntarily or by state or local mask mandates, in addition to limiting occupancy and minimizing crowding."

"Hopefully people will listen to public health experts and elected individuals will begin to publicly support the CDC recommendations," Specker said.

Lulled by a 'good spot'

The virus variant could potentially cause a second surge in the state, even as the COVID-19 situation has vastly improved from a fall-winter surge that peaked in early November.

The surge sorely tested hospitals and health staff in the state and reaped a deadly toll. While COVID-19 had killed only 167 people by September first, the surge killed hundreds more over the following months, averaging about 320 fatalities a month since, although the death rate has slowed in the past month.

Still, the surge propelled South Dakota into a unwelcome high ranking in the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita, ranking sixth all-time in virus fatalities among its fellow states, according to a New York Times tracker.

"We're in a good spot" with the COVID-19 situation, Noem said at a briefing this week, and in relative terms — both in South Dakota and compared to other states — she's not wrong.

But lulled by low cases and rebelling against the long winter, South Dakotans could very well relax social distancing, crowd avoidance, hand-washing and mask-wearing, just as the B117 variant arrives.

"These preventive measures are going to become even more important with this variant," Specker said. "Because it is winter, people need to think about the ventilation of indoor spaces they are in."

Vaccines trickle in

The incoming variant lends new urgency to the state's effort to get vaccine "shots in arms," as state Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon regularly describes the state's single-minded vaccination program goal.

South Dakota ranks third, behind West Virginia and North Dakota, for the percentage of COVID-19 doses it has administered, at 79% of received doses, according to The New York Times vaccination tracker.

According to the state Department of Health, about 7.5% of the state's population has received an initial vaccine shot And 26,448 South Dakotans have received both needed doses.

But progress is still slow due to the trickle of doses coming from the federal government, despite a recent announcement of slightly larger shipments starting next week, up to 12,800 weekly doses.

"The best way to obtain immunity is through vaccination and it is currently thought that the vaccines that are being administered now will work against this variant," Specker said. "Having a high percentage of the population vaccinated before this variant takes hold would be ideal, but South Dakota currently is not there" with the goal being 80%.

Fugleberg covers regional health issues, with a focus on Sanford Health. He can be followed on Twitter at @jayfug and reached at jfugleberg@forumcomm.com.