BISMARCK — Sanford Health plans to open a new facility in Bismarck specifically for COVID-19 patients sometime next week as its medical center in the city is full.

The move illustrates the severe capacity shortages that many North Dakota hospitals face as people continue to need care during the pandemic.

"I hope this is an eye-opening experience for everybody," said Sanford Health Bismarck President Michael LeBeau. "It now becomes non-traditional medical care as we overflow into a unit outside our hospital facilities. It becomes very real."

The new Sanford Health Bismarck COVID-19 unit will have around 20 beds and be staffed with a mixture of hospital, clinic and traveling nurses. Sanford is hoping to attract an additional 50 traveling nurses to fill the hospital's growing need, said LeBeau said.

Across North Dakota, hospitals have been experiencing severe staffing shortages as they continue to fill with both residents who had deferred health care earlier in the pandemic and residents hospitalized due to COVID-19. Earlier this month, interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke amended an order to allow COVID-19 positive health care workers to continue working in coronavirus wards as long as they are asymptomatic.

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Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, as of Monday had a 14-day rolling positivity rate of about 14.5%, which is an approximately 45% increase from the positivity rate the county reported on Oct. 16.

Sanford Health Bismarck's new COVID-19 unit, which the health care provider aims to open on Monday, will house patients with milder symptoms of COVID-19. LeBeau said patients with severe symptoms, like those who need ventilators, will remain within the hospital's original facilities.

Of those currently hospitalized in Sanford Health Bismarck, LeBeau said about 20% are hospitalized with COVID-19.

The new unit, which will cost about $1 million to set up and open, is housed in a building owned by Bismarck Surgical Associates. LeBeau said the building was previously a surgical center, so it already has good air circulation, but there will be negative pressure rooms to help control the spread of COVID-19 in the unit.

Negative air pressure helps prevent airborne diseases from spreading by filtering air in and out of the room.

On Friday, Nov. 13, North Dakota enacted both a statewide mask mandate and business capacity mandate in an effort to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the state. The mandates come after Gov. Doug Burgum for months stated the state did not need a mask mandate, as he believed it was not the right way to curb the spread in North Dakota and it may even drive noncompliance.

Even though Sanford Health Bismarck is opening a COVID-19 overflow facility, LeBeau said people still need to take precautions against the virus.

"We're still optimistic that if we make the changes necessary, follow the mandates and take care of ourselves, that we can slow the spread and that our health care facilities can manage what we have," LeBeau said. "We believe that if we're going to make the changes, today's got to be the day that we make them."

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