BISMARCK — A nationwide strain on microbiology laboratories means North Dakotans are often waiting four days or more for results to COVID-19 tests taken at mass testing events across the state.

Most tests taken at large public events go through a private lab in North Carolina that the state has hired to lighten the load on its public lab in Bismarck, said State Trauma System Coordinator Nicole Brunelle.

As cases of the virus and demand for testing have risen throughout the nation over the last month, the North Carolina lab has been inundated with testing samples, leading to a lag in results of about three days. The time test samples spend in transit from North Dakota to the private lab further adds to the wait for residents. Many testing events take place during the evening, and samples taken then can't be shipped out to North Carolina until the next day, Brunelle said.

The state's goal has been to report out results to residents within two days of their test.

Widely accessible mass testing events have been a staple of the state's pandemic response, but the long delay in results means residents with COVID-19 could be spreading the virus without knowing they have it, Brunelle said. At the same time, close contacts of the asymptomatic spreaders might not get word of their possible exposure until days after the fact, leading to more spread of the virus.

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Meanwhile, those who receive a negative result nearly a week after they took a test might have contracted the virus while they were waiting to hear back. The website for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a negative test result "only means that you did not have COVID-19 at the time of testing."

Brunelle notes that even delayed test results can be useful if residents quarantine while they wait. The health official said residents with symptoms of the virus should isolate at home for 10-14 days regardless of their test result, while those who don't have symptoms and are not close contacts of a known positive case "should avoid public places, gatherings and maintain physical distance."

Residents who need quick results should inquire about rapid antigen tests with their health care provider, local clinic or public health unit, Brunelle said. More rapid tests can spit out results in as little as 15 minutes and are becoming available by the day, which will likely take some of the burden off the public lab.

The labs in Bismarck and North Carolina process mainly molecular tests, which are slightly more accurate than rapid tests but take longer to evaluate. North Dakotans can also schedule molecular tests with their health care providers and local clinics — those continue to go through the public lab and results are usually reported within two days.

North Dakota's reliance on the private lab has grown as the state's COVID-19 outbreak worsened. In the first few months of pandemic, the private labs handled about 20% of the test samples taken in the state — now that figure is somewhere between 25% and 35%, Brunelle said.

Deadliest month draws to close

November has been by far North Dakota's deadliest month of the pandemic, with 361 COVID-19 deaths. That figure could rise during the next week as the state announces more deaths from the final days of the month.

The North Dakota Department of Health added to November's total on Monday, Nov. 30, announcing seven COVID-19 deaths. Despite the darkness of the last 30 days, there's a glimmer of light on the horizon — the state reported an overall drop in active cases on Monday for the eighth straight day.

The deaths came from all over the state, including two from Ward County and one each from Foster, Grand Forks, Morton, Pembina and Sioux counties.

The department says 927 North Dakotans have succumbed to the illness since March, and deaths have been climbing at a rapid pace over the last three months.

At least 543 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. There are more than 500 infected nursing home residents in the state, and 10 facilities have more than 15 active cases in residents, including The Meadows on University in Fargo, which has 35 infected residents.

Over the last two weeks, active COVID-19 cases have steadily declined from more than 10,000 on Nov. 12. Now, 6,477 North Dakotans are known to be infected with the virus. However, North Dakota still leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only South Dakota has more deaths per capita over the last week.

There are 331 residents hospitalized due to the illness. Forty-six residents with the virus are in intensive care.

The state's hospitals are under severe staffing crunches, and available hospital beds are scarce. While only about 20% of the patients hospitalized in North Dakota have COVID-19, hospital administrators say some of the strain is due to the extra staff and resources that must go to patients with the virus. Many nurses have also been sidelined by the virus in recent months.

On Monday, the Health Department reported 598 new cases, including:

  • 189 from Cass County, which includes Fargo. The county has 1,166 active cases.
  • 73 from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county has 956 active cases. Another 36 new cases came from neighboring Morton County, which includes Mandan.
  • 36 from Ramsey County, which includes Devils Lake and has 128 active cases.

About 8.43% of the 7,095 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, and an average of 12.5% of those tested in the last two weeks got a positive result. Like active cases, the state's positivity rate has decreased in the last two weeks.

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