BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Health reported 16 new COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, Nov. 18, as its active case count held close to steady.

And even as North Dakota's total active cases dropped slightly over recent days, the state continues to lead a surging national outbreak. North Dakota has reported more COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita than any state in the nation over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A fall wave of the pandemic is sweeping the country, with new case reports shattering previous national pandemic records over the last two weeks.

North Dakota's virus hospitalizations also dropped on Wednesday, falling below 300 for the first time in more than a week. The state reported more than 1,200 new positive individuals in its latest report along with a high number of recoveries, bringing the state's active case total to 9,977.

Even with the dip in hospitalization numbers, North Dakota is facing an extreme shortage of staffed beds, as COVID-19 hospitalizations converge with strains on health care staffing and high noncoronavirus admissions. There are just 16 available intensive care beds and 179 regular inpatient beds in the whole state, according to the state's latest figures.

And in an extraordinary move reported Tuesday, Nov. 17, Sanford Health is opening a 20-bed COVID-19 surge unit separate from its Bismarck hospital. The hospital's president Michael LeBeau told Forum News Service that its medical center has reached capacity, expressing his hope that the emergency expansion will serve as "an eye-opener" for North Dakota residents.

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With an average of 13 reported deaths per day this month, November is on track to be by far the deadliest month of the pandemic in North Dakota. Of the 16 people recorded dead in the Department of Health's latest report, many were older than 80 years old, but several were younger than the vast majority of people who have died from the virus. Three of the people reported dead on Wednesday were in their 60s and two were in their 50s. The deaths came from eight different counties and included three people from Burleigh County, three people from Cass County, and three people from Stutsman County.

Seven-hundred and eighty-five people have died with COVID in North Dakota since the start of the pandemic.

Burgum's decision Friday, Nov. 13, to enact a mask mandate was celebrated by members of the state's medical community, many of whom have called on him to implement the mandate for months. Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease specialist who has consulted the state on its pandemic response strategy, welcomed the news and said he will look for a flattening of the state's new case trajectory in the next two to four weeks to gauge whether the state should take additional mitigation measures.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health reported 1,275 new COVID positives:

  • Cass County, which includes Fargo, announced 330 new cases on Wednesday. The county now has 1,608 active positives, making it the largest hot spot in the state.

  • Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 191 new cases. The county has 1,466 residents known to be infected with the virus.

  • Ward County, which includes Minot, reported 132 new cases and now has 1,243 active positives.
  • Stutsman County, which includes Jamestown, reported 134 new cases and has 534 active positives.

About 16.5% of the 7,749 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 23% 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 14.5% for all residents tested and about 22.6% for tests taken on previously untested residents.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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