BISMARCK — In one of the worst days of the COVID-19 outbreak in North Dakota, the state health department Thursday, Sept. 24, reported eight deaths, a pandemic high in active cases and 471 new infections.

Health officials confirmed the deaths of a Burleigh County man, a Burleigh County woman, two Morton County men, a Morton County woman, a Ward County woman, a Ward County man and a Benson County woman. The eight residents were all between 60-99 years old, and seven had underlying health conditions, according to the department.

The department says 211 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 65 so far in September alone. It's by far North Dakota's deadliest month of the pandemic with a week still to go.

More than half of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and some western North Dakota facilities are now seeing even worse outbreaks than Fargo nursing homes had at the beginning of the pandemic, said Chris Jones, the director of the Department of Human Services. It's unclear how many of the deaths announced Thursday came in nursing home residents.

There are now 3,482 residents known to be infected with the virus. It's the sixth time in the last seven days the state has reached a new record in active cases.

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North Dakota, which surpassed 3,000 active cases for the first time over the weekend, leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita 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 remained at 89 from Wednesday. Twenty-six patients are in intensive care.

State rescinds quarantine order for close contacts

In a move that defies federal health guidelines, the state announced late Thursday that interim State Health Officer Paul Mariani has rescinded an order that required close contacts of known COVID-19 cases to quarantine.

The order, which Mariani expanded Wednesday, mandated that residents identified as close contacts quarantine at home for 14 days or risk facing Class B misdemeanor charges. The department defines a close contact as a person who was within six feet of a known COVID-19 case for at least 15 minutes. Previously, the order had only required household contacts of known positives to quarantine.

The expanded order also excluded essential workers as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which means it didn't apply to many working residents.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said in the release "we need a light touch of government... and we feel we can better support those efforts by working more closely with local public health and community leaders to identify mitigation strategies that will work and be supported in each community."

Burgum said while announcing the amended order Wednesday that the move was made to align with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the order now declared null, North Dakota is directly at odds with CDC recommendations. The agency's website says close contacts should get tested for COVID-19, and "asymptomatic contacts testing negative should self-quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure."

Burgum noted Wednesday that it is extremely important that close contacts stay away from other members of the public because as many as a third of all close contacts identified by contact tracers ended up testing positive for the illness. Health officials have said in the past that residents not complying with requests to quarantine has been an issue.

Mariani said close contacts should still avoid others "whenever possible," adding "we continue to stress the importance of quarantining and isolation to bend the curve back in the right direction in North Dakota."

The order would have been enforced by local law enforcement, but Thursday's release said no resident has actually been charged with violating the amended order or the original order for household contacts that was issued in April.

Infections keep climbing in Bismarck, Fargo areas

Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 118 new cases Thursday. The county has the most active cases in the state with 705. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 43 new cases and has 275 active cases.

Seventy-eight of the new cases reported Thursday came from Cass County, which includes Fargo. The state's most populous county has 593 active cases. North Dakota State University has reported 100 cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks.

Thirty-one of the new cases came from Stark County, which includes Dickinson. The county now has 301 active cases, the third most in the state.

Grand Forks County reported 29 new cases, bringing its active case count to 220.

Thirty-seven counties reported at least one case Thursday, including many small, rural counties. All but one of the 53 counties in the state have at least one active case.

About 7.1% of the 6,643 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 15% 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 6.6% for all residents tested and 12.2% for tests taken on previously untested residents. Both figures are the highest since Forum News Service began calculating the rates nearly two months ago.

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