COVID-19, other diseases caused historic South Dakota deaths

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic pushed South Dakota’s death rate to hit historic levels last year, according to a report from the state Department of Health.

The provisional report also found deaths from diabetes, liver diseases and unintentional injuries reached their highest levels in a decade. As the pandemic disrupted health care, doctors worried that people could see complications from other chronic diseases, particularly as patients avoided regular appointments or delayed elective procedures to avoid catching COVID-19.

A total of 9,857 South Dakotans died in 2020, which was the highest figure in at least a decade. Heart disease and cancer were the leading causes of death, followed by COVID-19, which killed 1,496 people, KELO-TV reported Tuesday. While the virus surged in South Dakota from last September through January, the state reported its highest monthly death rates in more than 50 years.

Last year’s 329 deaths from diabetes and 235 deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis were the most in a decade. Meanwhile, deaths from cerebrovascular disease — which refers to conditions that affect blood flow to the brain such as a stroke — reached their highest number since 2014.

Dr. Kara Dahl, the president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, said that in her work as an emergency room physician, she’s observed increases in people needing treatment for mental health crises, alcohol abuse and undiagnosed cancer. She noted that increases in drinking alcohol could contribute to many health problems, including liver and heart diseases.

“Even during the pandemic, it’s still important to take care of the other aspects of a person’s health and wellness,” she said.

The Department of Health also reported that unintentional injuries, which would cover events such as car accidents, reached a 10-year high, with 568 people killed. Dahl said there have been indications that even though fewer people took to the roads during the early months of the pandemic, they engaged in riskier behavior like speeding or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Health officials noted that 176 people who tested positive for the virus died of causes other than COVID-19. Those deaths were not included in the COVID-19 tally.

South Dakota has seen COVID-19 cases tumble to new lows in recent months, but Secretary of Health Kim Malsam Rysdon warned that the state remains vulnerable to new outbreaks, especially as the more-contagious delta variant circulates among those who haven’t been vaccinated against the virus.

“We know delta’s here,” she told South Dakota Public Broadcasting on Tuesday.

About 46% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, which is lower than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.