BISMARCK — In a move that breaks with federal health guidelines, North Dakota announced late Thursday, Sept. 24, that interim State Health Officer Paul Mariani has rescinded an order that required close contacts of known COVID-19 cases to quarantine.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 6 feet of a known COVID-19 case for at least 15 minutes.
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said in a Thursday news release "we need a light touch of government with more local leadership and collaboration, 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."
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, confirmed to Forum News Service that he and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner lobbied the governor's office to reverse the order Thursday. Pollert said he agreed with the 50 fellow lawmakers and constituents who bombarded his phone with calls, texts and emails about the quarantine order being an overreach by government.
Pollert said residents should be trusted to act responsibly and quarantine if they're asked to do so by contact tracers.
Department of Health spokeswoman Nicole Peske said the intent of the order had been overshadowed "given the public reaction and intense hostility to the penalty provision." She added that while no order is in place, those identified as close contacts are still strongly encouraged to quarantine if they can.
Regarding the quick change of course, Burgum said he has to "own the miscue" during a Friday appearance on Forum columnist Rob Port's Plain Talk podcast. The governor said he didn't expect such strong public opposition to the order.
Shelley Lenz, who is running for governor on the Democratic-NPL ticket, blasted her Republican opponent's handling of the matter.
"What is worse than no leadership is having unreliable and inconsistent direction," Lenz said in a Friday news release. "Burgum providing a directive one day and rescinding it the next causes even more confusion and damage to public confidence in managing this crisis."
Burgum said while announcing the amended order Wednesday, Sept. 23, 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 again out of step with CDC guidelines. 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 refusing to comply with requests to quarantine has been a serious issue.
The original order issued by then-State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte in April required only household contacts of known positives to quarantine. Peske said this part of the order has also been rescinded, meaning that household contacts are no longer required to quarantine.
Pollert said his issue was requiring close contacts to quarantine, but he said he was in favor of striking the whole order in favor of relying on personal responsibility.
Both versions of the order exempted essential workers as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
A separate order still requires people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to isolate for at least 10 days.
Local law enforcement would have enforced the quarantine mandate, but Thursday's release said no one has actually been charged with violating either version of the order.
Thursday's retraction isn't the first time during the pandemic the health department has backed off an order just hours after it was issued. Tufte, who later resigned, dramatically weakened a quarantine order for returning travelers in March a day after she declared the mandate.