SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — For more than a year, the South Dakota Department of Health has posted the number of those hospitalized in the state due to COVID-19 on an online data dashboard. The number climbed to 7,588 by the end of May and then did something surprising: It went down.

Over the following weeks, the number of total hospitalizations shown on the dashboard was cut by nearly 9%, dropping nearly 700 cases to 6,925 by Wednesday, June 16, raising a single big question among observers: Why?

"Data integrity processes," the department initially reported, when asked by Forum News Service.

The question wasn't an inconsequential one for many people, and that answer wasn't entirely satisfactory. The COVID-19 data dashboard is closely watched by journalists, state and local leaders and many others, including those who have mapped the data for themselves to track the state's pandemic situation.

As in other states, the official response to the pandemic has become deeply political, with Gov. Kristi Noem and state health officials a frequent lightning rod for critics. So, as the best source of South Dakota COVID-19 data, each tweak and adjustment to the dashboard by the Department of Health has earned scrutiny.

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On Wednesday morning, top Department of Health officials led off their last official COVID-19 media briefing to explain what's going on the hospitalization data on its COVID-19 dashboard.

Health department workers are going through a data cleanup process, going through each hospitalization report and cutting cases from the dashboard where someone was hospitalized for another reason and then tested positive for COVID-19, said Dr. Josh Clayton, the state epidemiologist.

"South Dakota is ahead of the process," Clayton said, adding other states will likely do similar work soon starting in August and wrap it up in October, following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Kim Malsam-Rysdon, the state health secretary, indicated there's some difference in how hospitalizations are tracked at the facility level versus the state level.

"There's some nuance from the health care provision perspective that, regardless of why they're there, if they do have COVID, they do have to take precautions," she said.