BISMARCK — After a cascade of local governments enacted mask requirements over the past two weeks, Gov. Doug Burgum praised the tightening of municipal policies on Thursday, Oct. 29, even as he again rejected the idea of a statewide mandate.
With North Dakota continuing to lead the national COVID-19 outbreak, multiple cities and tribal governments have gotten on board with mask mandates of various forms in the past two weeks. Bismarck, Grand Forks, Devils Lake, the Standing Rock Reservation and the Fort Berthold Reservation all elevated their masking guidance this week, bringing close to half of the state's population under a requirement of some form.
"This is about social psychology as much as it is about law," Burgum said, expressing his support for any policy that convinces more people to comply with masking. While Burgum has frequently expressed skepticism about the benefits and enforcement of a mandate on a statewide level, he suggested that tighter policies on the local scale might convince more people to pitch into the cause.
"If that works in their communities, I'm like, hallelujah, if that's the case that it does," he said.
In addition to the local governments that enacted requirements over the last week, many other North Dakota communities had already opted for mandates, including Fargo, West Fargo, Minot, the Turtle Mountain Reservation and the Spirit Lake Reservation.
Burgum looked to reconcile the distinctions between a statewide mandate and local mandates on Thursday and balked at a series of journalists' questions on this point, calling mask mandates an "obsession of the media."
But the Republican governor also struck a forceful tone on the severity of the virus, stressing the importance of controlling the current surge before winter shuts down outdoor gatherings completely.
Burgum elevated eight more North Dakota counties to the state's "high risk" level on Thursday, including counties encompassing the Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Minot communities. The high-risk level designation calls for businesses to reduce their capacity to 25% and cap it at 50 people.
The state's high-risk level previously mandated the closures of certain business, but Burgum adjusted those requirements when 16 counties were raised to the high level two weeks ago. Counties elevated to the orange risk level on Thursday are encouraged but not required to follow the reduced capacity and masking guidelines, according to the state's adjusted policies.
As part of the larger effort to flatten North Dakota's steep coronavirus curve, Burgum said that the state is looking to double down its effort to locate and isolate asymptomatic cases heading into the winter. The federal government announced earlier this week it is sending 220,000 rapid COVID-19 tests to North Dakota for the state to distribute. About 75,000 rapid tests have been sent directly to nursing homes. The newly developed tests return results in as little as 15 minutes.
Burgum has talked in the past about using the tests at nursing homes and schools. Assistant U.S. Secretary for Health Brett Giroir said Thursday that governors are encouraged to use the rapid tests, rather than rationing them, because weekly shipments will be on the way.
State reports 11 COVID deaths and pandemic record for active cases
The new masking policies come as North Dakota reported a daily record for new COVID-19 positives on Thursday, Oct. 29, bringing the state to another pandemic high for active cases. And with 11 deaths reported Thursday, the state reached the doorstep of 500 virus deaths.
The state Department of Health disclosed 184 people are hospitalized with the virus in its latest report as North Dakota's already stretched health care system continued to take on new strain.
North Dakota remains the national leader in multiple outbreak rankings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reporting the most COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the country over the last week. The Upper Midwest has experienced a regionwide surge of the virus, with South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Montana all experiencing rapidly climbing case numbers in the past month.
With 1,222 new positive cases reported on Thursday, the state hit a new active case record of 6,771.
But the active case totals coming out the Department of Health's daily reports are tentative. In the past, the state has reported large backlogs of recoveries, retroactively disclosing nearly 500 unreported recoveries from over the weekend earlier this week. The department is reporting some recoveries on a lag, according to its health analytics team, meaning that the daily active case totals may be updated at later dates.
In recent weeks a severe outbreak has emerged in Ward County, which encompasses Minot, where new cases and deaths have taken alarming jumps in the last week. The county reported nine deaths on Tuesday, five deaths on Wednesday and another three deaths on Thursday. One-hundred sixty-five new COVID positives were disclosed in Ward in the state's latest report, bringing the county's active total to 835 and making it the third-largest hot spot in the state, behind the more densely populated Burleigh and Cass counties.
In addition to the deaths in Ward County, the state reported single deaths in Cass, Dickey, Emmons, Logan, Stutsman, McLean, Oliver and Ransom counties on Thursday, bringing the state's reported death total up to 499.
The admission of six new COVID patients to North Dakota hospitals brought statewide hospitalizations to a record 184 on Thursday. Another 103 patients were initially hospitalized with some other ailment but later tested positive for COVID-19. Forty-one residents with the virus are in intensive care.
The state is battling through a shortage of available hospital beds as COVID hospitalizations converge with strains on health care staffing and high non-coronavirus admissions. There are 20 available intensive care beds and 216 regular inpatient beds in the whole state, according to the state's latest figures.
Cass County, which encompasses Fargo, and Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, have vied for the largest hot spot in the state over the past week. Cass reported 278 new cases on Thursday and currently has the largest outbreak in the state, at 1,220 active cases. Burleigh reported 169 new cases on Thursday and has an active case total of 1,128.
Grand Forks County has the fourth-largest outbreak in the state, behind Ward. The county reported 97 new cases on Thursday, bringing its active case total of 704.
About 15.6% of the 8,402 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 24.8% 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 11.8% for all residents tested and 20.8% for tests taken on previously untested residents.
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Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.