Anti-Mask Guv’s Grandmother Died in Nursing Home Ravaged by COVID

Michael Daly
·6 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos via Facebook
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos via Facebook

On Monday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem buried her grandmother, who was among 13 to die over a two-week period at a top-rated nursing home swept by COVID-19.

The 98-year-old grandmother, Aldys Arnold, is said by Noem’s office to have tested negative for the virus, though no cause of death was given. The other 12 of the 13 deaths between Nov. 14 and Nov. 28 at the Estelline Nursing Home are described by the administrator, Mike Ward, as “COVID-related.”

“All but one,” Ward told The Daily Beast.

But one less is still a dozen COVID deaths in a short period in one small facility. The number makes clear the lunacy of Noem’s downplaying of the pandemic and her continued refusal to impose a statewide mask mandate.

“I’ve always taken #COVID19 very seriously, but South Dakota trusted our citizens to exercise their personal responsibility to keep themselves and their loved-ones safe,” Noem tweeted back in July.

But the report from the Estelline Nursing Home, in a town of the same name, made clear that South Dakotans are anything but safe. Ward confirmed that along with the deaths, all but two of the surviving 38 residents and at least 16 of the staff had tested positive.

The two most recent deaths were on Saturday and helped raise the statewide daily total to 54, a record for South Dakota, which has fewer than 1 million people.

Noem remained fixated on livelihoods rather than lives and chose to tweet that day about the importance of supporting small businesses by shopping.

None of this is to say that Noem is at all cold-blooded when the lives include one of her own clan. She tweeted a moving tribute to Arnold on Nov. 22.

“We lost my grandma today but she is finally where she has wanted to be for quite some time… with Jesus. And grandpa and my dad and Ryan… and so many loved ones… I remember when my dad died, she said to me with tears rolling down her cheeks, ‘children should never die before their parents’... I had never seen my grandma cry before.”

Noem’s father, Aldys Arnold’s son, was killed in a 1994 accident involving farm machinery. Ryan Arnold, Aldys’ grandson and Noem’s cousin, died in 2010 of surgical complications after donating part of his liver to his brother.

“She was the toughest woman I have ever known,” Noem tweeted. “She spoke plainly, but full of wisdom. She could outwork any man and did so on a regular basis. She was honest... (we all have funny stories of when she was maybe a little TOO honest). And she left our family a legacy of faith and love for the Lord. We love you grandma. Thank you for the honor of being your granddaughter.”

Noem here made clear she is intimately acquainted with personal loss. But as of Monday night, Noem had not tweeted a word about the 12 who had died along with Arnold during that fearful fortnight.

For Noem to have mentioned the dozen other dead would have raised the specter of the virus that killed them even as she was continuing to claim that she had brought it under control by invoking personal responsibility rather than mandating a vital precaution—a face mask—that is as simple and unimposing as wearing a seatbelt.

Noem Ditches COVID Crisis at Home for D.C. Meetings With Lame-Duck Trumpers

And nobody could rightly blame the nursing home itself for failing to protect its residents as best it could. State and federal inspectors had consistently given the home their highest ratings, and its record is unblemished by so much as a single serious violation.

The family of one of the dead, 90-year-old Ardyce Apland, described Estelline to The Daily Beast as “excellent,” reporting that the home took extensive precautions against COVID-19 long before anybody there tested positive. Apland’s son-in-law, David Herrold, said visitors were required to wear masks and met with a resident in a separate room partitioned by Plexiglas and plastic sheeting.

Visitors and the residents were kept separated. But through the plastic, Herrold could see that Apland was continuing to thrive since moving into the home in June.

“She was gaining weight, looking good,” he recalled.

Then, as best as Ward can tell, an asymptomatic staffer brought the virus into the facility from the outside, presumably having caught it in the realm where masks are not required and where Noem has allowed people to gather in crowds as large as a quarter-million at a bike rally.

“It’s everywhere,” Herrold said of the virus

Despite all of the precautions, everywhere came to include the nursing home. Apland swiftly went from thriving to dead.

“In 12 days,” Herrold said.

That was on Nov. 22, the very day Noem’s grandmother died.

Kristi Noem Seals Her Reputation as COVID’s Cartoon Villain

Apland was just the sort of person a governor of whatever politics should eulogize. She had raised three kids on a family farm and they would remember being awakened by the smell of the lefse—Norwegian flatbread—that she baked on the pancake griddle. She worked for years as a secretary at the local Lutheran church and sang in the choir for nearly six decades.

But to speak of Apland’s life is to risk talk of her death and COVID-19. Noem continues to downplay the danger of the virus. And she had repeatedly discounted what seems to have been its most likely vector into the Estelline home.

“The science of the virus tells us that it’s very, very difficult to spread the virus when you’re asymptomatic,” Noem said in a Fox TV interview in July.

If the governor seems at least outwardly indifferent to the COVID-19 deaths, Ward, the administrator at Estelline, has clearly taken them to heart. And it is not just because his own mother is among the residents there who have tested positive. He seems as heartbroken over all the home’s COVID-19 victims as if they were family.

“It’s awful,” he said on Monday. “I just don’t know what to say. It’s devastating.”

He declined to comment on Noem’s views and policies.

“We’re doing all we can to fight COVID and we don’t need to be fighting amongst ourselves,” he told The Daily Beast.

He was able to honestly say that he and the staff at the Estelline home had done their wholehearted best. But they had no control over the realm outside.

“We tried,” he said.

And on a day when Noem was both burying her grandmother and celebrating her 49th birthday, her office was asked if she had anything to say about the dozen other dead.

She said nothing at all.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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