The North Dakota Department of Health confirmed two new positive tests for coronavirus Tuesday, March 24. The state now has 34 known cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
The department announced a Dunn County man in his 20s and a Burleigh County woman in her 60s have tested positive for the virus after traveling to areas with high rates of infection. The Dunn County case marks the first on the Western Edge.
A fifth patient was hospitalized with the illness, and the department is currently monitoring 112 people, most of whom were found to have had close contact with those who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Burgum said Monday that the state lab has processed tests from 48 of 53 counties, and he has previously noted that rural communities are not immune to the disease. There are now a combined four cases in Pierce, Dunn and Walsh counties, which have no cities of more than 5,000 people.
The governor said North Dakota cannot become complacent with news of few positive tests in the last few days because the state is waging "a logistical battle" to ensure medical facilities, equipment and staff are ready for a potential jump in cases.
"Each day we have low count here, it gives North Dakotans another chance to prepare," Burgum said Monday. "We might be weeks away from when we would have crunch on our medical capacity, but each day that we get a chance to do more planning and more work is a life-saving day."
Burgum said Monday that state health officials are trying to ramp up contact tracing, a process that aims to find people who have been exposed to someone known to have the illness. He said other governments, including a Japanese prefecture, have found success in slowing the virus' spread by finding those exposed to it and ensuring they isolate themselves from the rest of the population. There are now 123 state and local health officials and North Dakota State University students trained to perform contact tracing.
A total of 1,488 people have been tested for the virus in North Dakota, and eight counties have at least one known case of the illness, with the bulk of the cases coming from Burleigh and Morton counties, which includes the Bismarck-Mandan area.
Burgum announced an executive order last week that mandates gyms, movie theaters, bars, cafes and restaurants end any on-site business until April 6. Burgum added that restaurants are encouraged to provide takeout, drive-thru and delivery services during the outbreak.
The move came a day after Burgum said he would leave the decision whether to close businesses up to local governments and individual business owners. However, with a growing number of positive cases and evidence of community transmission, Burgum said last Thursday it was time to take more drastic measures to prevent the disease from spreading more widely.
The number of people who applied for unemployment benefits from the state has skyrocketed in the last week. Since Wednesday, Job Service North Dakota received about 8,100 claims for unemployment, compared to 418 all of the previous week.
The governor said most of the claims came from workers in the state's oil and gas industry, which has been rocked by exceedingly lower crude oil prices. Burgum said he expected more claims from the retail and hospitality industries to come in over the next few days. He also said his office was working to "eliminate red tape," so Job Service North Dakota could process and pay out claims faster.
Burgum also announced last week the state's 175 public and private school districts will remain closed indefinitely in an effort to increase "social distancing" by limiting situations in which the virus can spread easily between people.
The governor said he would be signing an executive order that allows virtual and alternative learning to count toward instructional hours for schools across the state. State law currently has some restrictions regarding virtual learning, but Burgum said his order would allow districts to come up with "distance learning" plans by Friday, March 27, for consideration by the Department of Public Instruction. If approved, districts could begin holding remote classes the following week. Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel said Monday about 15 to 20 districts have already submitted plans.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler announced Monday her department was seeking a waiver for all federally mandated tests for the rest of the semester. She also said the education department is canceling the North Dakota state assessments and the ACT make-up test for high school juniors, who will receive a voucher to take the test at a later date.
All 11 North Dakota University System institutions will finish the semester through online courses. Burgum said Sunday that students returning from spring break trips to areas with high concentration of COVID-19 cases should self-quarantine if symptomatic and report their travel activity to the health department.
Hundreds of public events and meetings in North Dakota, including the high school state basketball tournaments, political party conventions and the Sanford Fargo Marathon, have been canceled or postponed to prevent mass gatherings during the epidemic.
State and national health officials have repeatedly said taking these kinds of actions could help prevent a sudden outbreak of COVID-19 that overwhelms the health care system.
Two Bismarck health care executives said Saturday that private providers continue to prioritize patients with symptoms for testing because limited resources precludes testing people who are not showing signs of the illness. The health department's website says priority for testing goes to people hospitalized with a respiratory illness, health care workers, those believed to be exposed through contact with a positive case and people living or working in nursing homes and other group settings.
Every state now has at least 15 confirmed cases of the illness — New York State has been hit the hardest, with more than 20,000 known cases and more than 100 deaths. Minnesota has 235 known cases and one death, and South Dakota had announced 28 positive tests and one death as of Monday evening.
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