In this file photo from Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem speaks in Sioux Falls, SD. Noem has insisted that South Dakota is excelling in its handling of the pandemic, even as the state surpassed 9,000 active coronavirus cases and matched an all-time high for deaths reported in one day.
Erin Bormett–The Argus Leader/AP
October 28, 2020 3:54 AM EDT

(SIOUX FALLS, S.D.) — South Dakota’s largest medical organizations on Tuesday launched a joint effort to promote mask-wearing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the state suffers through one of the nation’s worst outbreaks, a move that countered Gov. Kristi Noem’s position of casting doubt on the efficacy of wearing face coverings in public.

As the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have multiplied in recent weeks, the Republican governor has tried to downplay the severity of the virus, highlighting that most people don’t die from COVID-19. Noem, who has staked out a reputation on refusing to issue any mandates to stem the virus’ spread, has repeatedly countered recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks in public settings.

Shortly after the Department of Health reported that the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 broke records for the third straight day on Tuesday, people who represent doctors, nurses, hospitals, school administrators and businesses huddled to promote mask-wearing, social distancing and handwashing. They warned the state’s hospitals could face a tipping point in their ability to care for COVID-19 patients.

“Masking is a simple act that each one of us can participate in and it can save lives,” said Dr. Benjamin Aaker, the president of the South Dakota State Medical Association. “If you mask, that life could be your mother, father, your friend, or even your own.”

Noem’s spokesman Ian Fury noted that the governor does not oppose all mask-wearing, but is trying to promote a “nuanced” approach to masks. She has said it is appropriate to wear masks around people with symptoms of COVID-19 or in hospitals. But she has not encouraged people to wear face coverings in public, as recommended by the CDC.

October has already become the state’s deadliest during the pandemic, with 152 people dying. Health officials have tallied 375 total deaths from COVID-19.

The groups calling for mask-wearing detailed the upheaval caused by virus infections — from school administrators struggling to conduct contact tracing to businesses worried about the economic impact of widespread outbreaks.

The state’s prisons have seen the greatest surge in cases in recent weeks. Roughly one out of every three inmates statewide have an active infection.

The state has reported the nation’s second-highest number of new cases per capita over the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. There were 1,226 new cases per 100,000 people, meaning that one in roughly every 82 people tested positive. The Department of Health reported 989 new cases on Tuesday.

The rise in hospitalizations has forced the state’s two largest hospital systems — Sanford Health and Avera Health — to alter the logistics of some elective procedures to free up space for the influx of COVID-19 patients.

There were 395 people hospitalized by COVID-19 statewide, according to the Department of Health. About 34% of general-care hospital beds and 38% of Intensive Care Units statewide remained available on Tuesday.

Health care providers will hit an unmanageable load of patients if the virus continues to grow, Aaker warned, leading to a shortage of medical resources.

“There’s a possibility that we meet that tipping point,” he said.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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