BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum announced on Wednesday, Oct. 14, that 16 North Dakota counties, including those encompassing Fargo, Bismarck, Dickinson and Williston, are moving up to the "high risk" level on the state's official COVID-19 gauge.
The jump up in risk level for several of the state's most populous and virus-ridden counties is accompanied by a change in the guidelines for "high risk" counties.
Bars, restaurants and large venues in Cass County and the 15 others that will move to the orange-coded designation on Friday are advised to serve only a quarter of their normal capacity and no more than 50 people overall. Burgum confirmed that the new guidelines are not required by law, but represented "the strongest recommendation possible."
Prior to Wednesday, the high-risk level came with mandated closures of nail salons, barber shops and gyms, plus restrictions on in-house dining at restaurants and bars. Burgum said that new knowledge of the virus' spread indicated that much more transmission comes at weddings and church services than personal care businesses, so restricting hair and nail salons wouldn't be a very effective policy.
No county has been put in the highest, "critical risk" category since Burgum unveiled the level system in May, though that would entail required business closures under the new guidelines.
Burgum's five-color gauge has been criticized by citizen record keepers and his political opponents, who say the designations are arbitrary and fail to communicate the actual risk of COVID-19 in hard-hit communities. The Republican governor declined to move any counties into the orange or red levels last week despite 14 counties meeting two of the main criteria for high or critical risk.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney told Forum News Service the city will "push hard" on businesses to implement mask policies and abide by the new recommendations on capacity limits. Mahoney said mandatory business closures coming from the state and the city could be a real possibility if the rate COVID-19 is spreading through the community doesn't subside.
"If people don't start respecting the disease, we're heading back to economic shutdown," Mahoney said.
Burgum struck a firmer tone than usual Wednesday while pleading residents to wear masks and refrain from gathering in large groups. He pushed a familiar line that North Dakota can overcome the virus with each resident being responsible for following precautionary measures, rather than the government issuing sweeping mandates.
He noted that COVID-19 can prove to be a serious illness for young people and appealed for all residents to return to the sense of unity the state had eight months ago when much was still unknown about the virus.
"Last spring, we had a tremendous togetherness, and we need to rekindle the hearts-in-the-window spirit that we had then," Burgum said. "It's not something we need to do forever. We need to do it long enough to slow the spread. We need to do it long enough to get to 2021, so that other tools may be at our disposal, including vaccines that can help protect the most vulnerable."
Burgum lamented that proven public health measures, like mask-wearing, have become politicized. However, he expressed hope that North Dakota could turn around its devastating outbreak if residents make "small investments in behavior changes."
State reports 8 COVID-19 deaths, record-high case counts
Earlier in the day, the state health department reported eight deaths from COVID-19 and record-high numbers of active cases and new infections.
Health officials confirmed the deaths of three LaMoure County men, a Bowman County woman, a Burleigh County man, a McLean County man, a McIntosh County man and a Mercer County man. All of the victims were at least 50 years old and had underlying conditions.
The department says 365 North Dakotans have succumbed to the illness since March, and deaths have been mounting at rapid pace over the last two months. The 98 deaths recorded in October so far put it on pace to be by far the deadliest month of the pandemic. There were 120 deaths reported in September.
At least 212 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, many of which have been decimated by the virus in the last two months. Nine facilities have double-digit numbers of infected residents, including Minot's Somerset Courts, which has 57 residents who have tested positive, according to the department.
There are now 4,759 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus. It's the seventh day in a row the state has set a new pandemic record.
North Dakota has reported the most COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the nation over the last week, according to The New York Times. The whole region is experiencing a surge in cases, with South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Minnesota all identified by the publication as states where infections are "high and staying high."
The number of hospitalized residents due to the illness decreased to 132 on Wednesday. Another 74 patients were initially hospitalized with some other ailment but later tested positive for COVID-19. Thirty-nine North Dakotans with the virus are in intensive care.
North Dakotans who are transferred out of state for medical care are not tracked by the health department, spokeswoman Nicole Peske said.
The state is battling through a shortage of available hospital beds as COVID-19 hospitalizations converge with strains on health care staffing and high noncoronavirus admissions. There are 32 available intensive care beds and 241 regular, inpatient beds in the whole state.
The situation is especially urgent in Bismarck, where the two hospitals have one available ICU bed and two inpatient beds between them. Fargo's three hospitals have 20 open ICU beds and 24 inpatient beds, while Grand Forks' Altru hospital has four ICU beds and 22 inpatient beds.
The health department reported a record 713 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday.
More than 40 counties reported at least one case Wednesday, including many small, rural counties.
Cass County, which includes Fargo, reported a whopping 216 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The state's most populous county has seen a spike in new infections over the last two weeks and now has the most active cases in the state with 1,099. That's more than all of North Dakota had in mid-August.
Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 151 new cases Wednesday. The county has the second most active cases in the state with 805. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 44 new cases and has 270 active cases.
The state's two largest metro areas account for about 46% of the active cases in the state.
Fifty-five new cases came from Ward County, which includes Minot. The county now has the third most active cases in the state at 324.
Grand Forks County reported 30 new cases, bringing its active case count to 316.
About 9.5% of the 7,475 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 20.1% of residents tested for the first time got a positive result.
North Dakota does not report a seven-day rolling average for positivity rate, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 8.4% for all residents tested and 15.2% for tests taken on previously untested residents. Both rates are the highest since Forum News Service started tracking the figures at the beginning of August.
The World Health Organization recommends keeping positivity rates below 5% before allowing businesses to reopen.
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