The CEO of South Dakota-based Sanford Health, which operates more than 200 healthcare facilities in the Dakotas and Minnesota, informed nearly 50,000 employees that he won't always wear a mask in public settings because he believes he has some level of immunity after contracting COVID-19.
Forum News Services obtained a copy of the email sent to Sanford Health employees, in which CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft says he's still experiencing "lagging coughs and fatigue" from the virus.
"For me to wear a mask defies the efficacy and purpose of a mask and sends an untruthful message that I am susceptible to infection or could transmit it," Krabbenhoft said. "I have no interest in using masks as a symbolic gesture when I consider that my actions in support of our family leave zero doubt as to my support of all 50,000 of you. My team and I have a duty to express the truth and facts and reality and not feed the opposite."
Sanford Health, unlike South Dakota-based Avera Health, has not offered support for a statewide mask mandate.
In an interview with the Argus Leader, Krabbenhoft said South Dakota has the COVID-19 situation "under control" and "there's not a crisis." He suggested that South Dakotans could begin receiving vaccinations within 10 days, though neither promising vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna has received FDA permission for emergency distribution.
Krabbenhoft, who is not a doctor, may very well be right that he is no longer contagious. However, Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann says there no sure thing when it comes to the end of a contagious cycle.
"We do have individuals who can continue to shed virus for a long time after their illness," said Ehresmann, answering a question from a caller (Anne) on MPR radio earlier this week. "Normally we would say when your symptoms have resolved and after a fixed amount of time that you would not be infectious. We do have people who continue to test positive after a long time.
"The feeling is that they are not infectious to other people at that point. My recommendation to Anne would be however that she should be always masking when she's with her mom or people who are high risk just as a precaution. But we do have people who can test positive for a long time but are no longer infectious."
South Dakota's healthcare system is not nearing capacity the way Minnesota's hospitals are. According to the South Dakota health department, there are 578 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, including 95 in intensive care. Approximately one-third of the state's ICU beds are still available.
Despite hospital capacity being OK at the moment, the number of cases and the test positivity rate skyrocketed in South Dakota in October but has began what appears to be a plateau or gradual decline in November.
This week, the City of Sioux Falls passed an ordinance requiring masks in public when social distancing isn't possible, though anyone who violates the mandate will not be punished.