BISMARCK — North Dakota health officials announced Tuesday, March 3, that the state is now equipped to test for COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.

The state has been able to submit tests to out-of-state labs, but it has not tested anyone for the virus because the 17 people who have been monitored did not have an illness serious enough to be hospitalized, said Kirby Kruger, director of the Division of Disease Control at the North Dakota Department of Health.

However, Kruger said the state may test people who have not been hospitalized in the future if the risk they’ve contracted the virus and the severity of their symptoms necessitates it. Even so, Kruger said those who suspect they may have been exposed to the virus should first contact their health care provider rather than showing up at the hospital to protect those around them.

There are no confirmed cases of the virus in North Dakota. The state continues to monitor two people who have recently returned from international travel, and 15 people have already completed a 14-day monitoring period without showing symptoms of virus.

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The tests were provided by the CDC, which previously processed tests for the coronavirus in league with a small number of public health labs around the country.

The turnaround for evaluating the tests in-state is quick. State health officials say they can get results in four or five hours on average, but any positive tests would have to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation, which would take at least a few days.

There is no cost for the testing, but patients are on the hook for their own treatment if they test positive.

Health officials also rolled out a new online self-reporting tool at www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus. Those who have traveled internationally in the last two can take a survey that evaluates their risk of having contracted the virus. The survey also provides those who take it with information about how to monitor themselves for symptoms of the illness.

Lab tests have confirmed at least 115 cases of the virus in the United States, and nine people have died in Washington State, according to the New York Times.

Gov. Doug Burgum said in a press release “it is highly likely that COVID-19 will spread to North Dakota in the future,” but Burgum and health officials insisted Tuesday that the risk of widespread infection remains low for the state. As Kruger put it, the virus will probably not affect the average North Dakotan.

Kruger told Forum News Service the state’s relative geographic isolation and lack of major population density may put North Dakota in a better position to avoid widespread infection.

Burgum said the state will focus on preparation rather than panic by ensuring North Dakotans are informed of the necessary precautions to prevent not just the spread of COVID-19, but influenza and other communicable diseases too.

North Dakota’s new ability to speedily test for the coronavirus infection in the state’s own lab heralds greatly expanded testing both in the state and nationwide, as both public and private testing comes online.

The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday said it would allow the use of tests manufactured by a variety of non-governmental laboratories.

Production of private tests means doctors will have other options besides public health labs to test for COVID-19 infections, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who is heading up the agency’s coronavirus response.

“I understand from the FDA commissioner that by the end of the week they expect many more test kits to be available through other pathways besides CDC, which I know is great news for the clinicians out there,” she said in a Tuesday media briefing

The CDC has been shipping coronavirus tests to public health laboratories in recent days and expects state and local health officials should be able to run a total of 75,000 tests by the end of the week, she said.

“Because of the FDA regulations, those are still considered presumptive positive until there is a confirmatory test at CDC,” she said. “But those are actionable results. That is, state and local health departments are using those to make public health decisions.”