Sanford Health has issued an extraordinary statement distancing the wider company from comments made by its CEO, who said he won't always wear a face mask in public settings having recently recovered from COVID-19.
The South Dakota-based health system, which has more than 200 facilities in the Dakotas and Minnesota, has come under scrutiny following comments made by Kelby Krabbenhoft in an email to staff.
"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, who is not a doctor, said, adding he has "no interest in using masks as a symbolic gesture."
In a series of tweets Friday afternoon, Sanford Health issued the following statement: "Kelby Krabbenhoft’s email was based on his own experience with COVID-19 and his personal opinions about the virus. They do not reflect the views of our health system as a whole.
"Sanford Health’s position is the same as it has always been – consistently wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home if you’re sick are critical to preventing the spread of the virus. It is important to follow CDC guidelines.
"We continue to be incredibly grateful to our frontline workers who are stepping up every day to take care of our patients."
While there has been some early data that suggests those who experience COVID-19 may have immunity that can last years, there have also been instances where people have reported being reinfected after recovering.
Krabbenhoft's comments come against a backdrop of South Dakota having one of the highest per-capita case rates of COVID-19 not just in America, but in the world. The state's governor, Kristi Noem, has resisted imposing a mask mandate, describing it as a "feel-good" measure.
And his comments drew attention from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Friday, just a day after he was joined at a press conference by leaders of several Minnesota-based health systems who begged Minnesotans to mask-up and observe social distancing to prevent deaths from escalating further.
"The CEO of Sanford Health is not a medical professional," he said. "There is not solid data to confirm that you cannot get it again. My point of being someone whose systems are being strained right now, of someone who is hearing from his clinical staff, I don't understand myself why you wouldn't do it."
"I was a bit disappointed," he added. "This is a business manager of a system who doesn't have and is not supported by the data around this."