BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota's top health official has resigned amid disagreements with the governor's office over part of the state's COVID-19 risk level.
It's the second sudden resignation of a top state health officer since the pandemic began.
Dr. Andrew Stahl will step down as interim state health officer after just three months in the role, Gov. Doug Burgum announced Wednesday, Aug. 19. Stahl will leave the position at the end of the month to return to the private sector and a job at Sanford Health in Bismarck. Burgum said the state is "scrambling" to replace Stahl, but added that it's a hard position to fill with a qualified candidate.
Stahl's departure comes after his predecessor, Mylynn Tufte, abruptly resigned the position in May. At the time, Burgum would not directly answer if Tufte had been asked to step down. Tufte declined to comment on her resignation at the time and could not be reached in time for comment for this story.
Burgum said Stahl had advocated for bumping up the state-designated COVID-19 risk level for the state's COVID-19 hotspots such as Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck. The whole state currently sits in the "low" or "green" risk level, and Burgum has said he doesn't want to move up a notch on the scale until his office sees a long-term trend. However, he has noted at press conferences for the last month that the state is "not moving in the right direction" as active cases continue to climb and the outbreak in the Bismarck metro area worsens.
Burgum said the discord over risk level designations was not a factor in Stahl's resignation, adding that, as governor, he values having different opinions in the room. The governor said Stahl's plan had always been to remain in the role for three or four months before starting his new job at Sanford, but he added that his office was hoping to convince Stahl to stay on longer.
The first-term Republican governor said the disagreement between his office and Stahl lies in the way they look at the pandemic. Burgum, who is running for reelection this year, said health officials may not take into account the nonmedical factors of governing such as politics and economic factors.
"If you're in the medical profession and in the state health officer role, then you make medical recommendations based strictly on that," Burgum said. "We're not asking state health officers to take on economic risk, financial risk, legal risk, political risk — that's not what they're hired or paid to do. Those decisions roll up to (the governor's) office in particular, and we have to look at a lot of different factors on how we're making those decisions."
Stahl, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. In his letter of resignation, Stahl thanked Burgum for the opportunity to serve in the "very challenging and rewarding position."
Shelley Lenz, who is running against Burgum on the Democratic-NPL ticket, criticized Burgum's handling of the pandemic in a text message after news of Stahl's resignation broke.
"Doug Burgum is consistently putting politics over the health and well-being of the people of North Dakota," Lenz said. "Our state is now without a top doctor during a worldwide pandemic. It’s time for science and leadership — not politics and wishful thinking."
Two doctors in the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force, Joan Connell and David Field, advocated last week for a mandatory mask order in Bismarck or the whole state. Burgum, who has repeatedly rejected the idea of mandating masks, said he and Stahl never discussed issuing a mask order.
Active COVID-19 cases reach pandemic high
Earlier Wednesday, the North Dakota Department of Health reported 188 new cases of COVID-19.
The department also reported the deaths of a McLean County woman in her 70s and a Grand Forks County woman in her 90s. McLean County is north of Bismarck in the center of the state. Like most victims of the illness, both women were reported to have had underlying health conditions.
The health department says 130 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 76 residents of Cass County, which includes Fargo and West Fargo. Seventy-two of the deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. There still are four deaths that remain in a "presumed positive" category, which means a medical professional determined that COVID-19 was a cause of death but the person was not tested for the illness while he or she was alive.
There are now 1,209 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus — up 40 from Tuesday and the highest level of the pandemic. The number of hospitalized residents increased by two from Tuesday to 49, including 15 residents in intensive care.
Forty-two of the new cases came from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county emerged as the state's hotspot over the past two months and has by far the most active cases with 324. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported five new cases and has 107 currently infected residents.
Thirty-six of the new cases reported Wednesday came from Cass County. The state's most populous county has 116 active cases.
Twenty-one of the new cases came from Grand Forks County, which now has the second most known active cases in the state with 142.
Ward County, which includes Minot, reported 20 new cases. Stark County reported 16 new cases, bringing its active case count to 135 — the third most in the state.
Twenty-seven counties reported at least one case Wednesday, including many small, rural counties. Burgum has said it appears the virus is spreading more rapidly in rural areas, and residents across the state should take basic precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
About 3.9% of the 4,862 test results announced Wednesday came back positive, but 7% of residents tested for the first time received a positive result.
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