SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – After South Dakota lawmaker Bob Glanzer became one of the first people in the state to be sickened by the coronavirus from an unknown source, his hometown of Huron acted quickly to try to blunt the infection rate, but officials couldn't stop the disease from spreading among his extended family.
Within days of the 74-year-old Glanzer announcing he has the coronavirus, his wife, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law also tested positive. Glanzer is in critical condition and his niece, 51-year-old Mari Hofer, has died of the virus, according to her husband Quint Hofer. Several other relatives have symptoms, said Tom Glanzer, the Republican lawmaker's son.
The coronavirus didn't spread through bus or subway systems in Huron as it has in major cities with dense populations. Instead, it ripped through a close-knit family. Infectious disease experts say this kind of spread is expected.
“The simple fact that our family loves each other is probably what caused this to spread,” Tom Glanzer said.
Bob Glanzer's wife, Penny, received treatment for breast cancer in early March. As she recovered at home, family members dropped by with meals or to help around the house. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of them, Bob Glanzer had the virus.
Once he was hospitalized, the family isolated themselves. But by then it was too late and family members started to display symptoms.
South Dakota health officials reported on Thursday that 36 more people have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the the state's total to 165. Two have died.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Gov. Kristi Noem on Wednesday said the state's sparse population would slow the spread of the virus, factoring into her plans to not issue stay-at-home orders and instead to rely on voluntary compliance with recommendations to halt group gatherings.
But Caterina Scoglio, a professor at Kansas State University who studies how viruses spread through rural communities, said small towns can have unique vulnerabilities that cities don't have.
“In rural areas, there are normally fewer contacts with people but those contacts are based on strong ties,” she said.
That's why health care workers in South Dakota are emphasizing that family members should help each other by staying apart.
It's counterintuitive for some people, said Misty Rudebusch, a physician's assistant who runs a clinic in the town of Howard.
“We have generations of families that make those communities," she said. “Everyone learns to rely on their neighbor.”
But people are finding creative ways to communicate their support, even if they can't be near each other.
Tom Glanzer shared a video of a “prayer caravan" of dozens of minivans and trucks that drove past his mother's house to show support. He said his family has grown closer, even while they can only talk through video chats.
“With everything that happened, you’d think everything is falling apart, but we’re all held together with that same bond of family and faith in God,” he said.
This story has been corrected to show that Glanzer’s brother-in-law tested positive for COVID-19, not his brother.