MITCHELL, S.D. — If you're tired of wearing a mask, U.S. Sen. John Thune encourages you to get vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy may be part of South Dakota’s culture, Thune told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview, but he believes that getting the vaccine is the best protection against COVID-19.

“I think it’s the best way to protect yourself, your family and those around you and your community from a disease that has proven to be very lethal,” Thune said. “Culturally, we value our freedoms, we don't like people telling us what to do — I don't tell people what to do, but I certainly encourage them.”

Fifty-six percent of eligible South Dakotans have been fully vaccinated, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.

Thune acknowledged concerns surrounding FDA approval status on the vaccines, but reinforced the fact that Pfizer has since been approved. Getting the vaccine reduces the risk of COVID-19 and its potentially severe complications, the CDC says — and Thune echoed that sentiment.

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“I think that people who don't get the vaccine are going to be a lot more susceptible to getting hospitalized, a lot more susceptible to dying from it,” Thune said, “and the data just shows that. It's just a fact.”

Thune has been consistent in his messaging on the vaccine, calling it safe and effective in a December 2020 tweet.

Jazmine Kemp, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, said in an email statement that South Dakota is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in children under 12, who aren’t eligible to get vaccinated.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Kemp said, citing that 62% of eligible South Dakotans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The federal government ought not to mandate masks or vaccines, according to Thune, questioning the constitutionality of such action. Rather, those decisions should be made on the local level with an emphasis on community responsiveness.

“If a local business or a school district or a hospital decides to do (require masks), that's their prerogative — and they have to answer to their own voters,” Thune said. “The Mitchell School District, for example, that school board is going to have to be responsive to the people there. And I assume that decision will create a lot of conversation.”

Johnson’s office said that local administrators, teachers, and parents know what’s best for their students “far more than the federal government does.”

Mask requirements will vary from place to place based on community transmission and vaccine rates, Thune said, noting that school boards should listen to the science, data and people when making decisions. However, he added that there is a solution for people who want to stop wearing masks.

“I hope we can get past the point where we have to mask everywhere, but I think the best way to do that is to get vaxxed. So once everybody has been vaccinated, the need for masks diminishes significantly,” Thune concluded.

The CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students age 2 and older, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Mitchell, Huron and Yankton School Districts are the only districts in the state currently requiring masks in their schools.