BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Health has confirmed seven new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, on Friday, March 20. The state now has 26 known cases of the illness.

The new cases include two women and a man in Morton County, two men in Burleigh County, a woman in Ramsey County and a woman in Pierce County. The department has previously announced positive cases in Ward and Cass counties.

Gov. Doug Burgum said at Friday press conference the fact that the number of cases hadn't doubled in the past day is a sign that some of the initial measures taken may be working, but he noted that outbreak will almost certainly get worse in North Dakota before it gets better.

"We have to take very seriously the (positive test) numbers that are coming out of other states," Burgum said. "If we take a path of denial that it cannot happen here, then we're ignoring the science and ignoring the basic underlying fundamentals of how pandemics work."

Some of the new cases could be seen as particularly troubling because they've come in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's identified "vulnerable population." Three of the new people whose positive tests were announced Friday are in their 70s. Two North Dakotans with the illness have been hospitalized, including the state's first case, a Ward County man in his 60s.

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Burgum also noted that the new case in Pierce County, which lies in north-central North Dakota, signals that rural communities are not immune to the disease. All the other cases have come in counties with cities of 5,000 residents or more.

The state has reported 938 tests for the virus as of Friday morning, with 912 coming back negative. The department no longer lists pending tests on its website because private providers don’t need to get permission to send tests to the state lab. However, the department is currently monitoring 60 people, most of whom were found to have had close contact with those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Burgum announced an executive order Thursday, March 19, that mandates gyms, movie theaters, bars, cafes and restaurants end any on-site business until April 6. Burgum added that restaurants are permitted and encouraged to provide takeout, drive-thru and delivery services during the outbreak.

The move comes a day after Burgum said he would leave the decision whether to close businesses up to local governments and individual business owners. However, with a growing number of positive cases and evidence of community transmission, Burgum said Thursday it was time to take more drastic measures to prevent the disease from spreading more widely.

Burgum said Friday the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits from the state has skyrocketed in the last two days. On Thursday alone, about 1,600 residents applied for unemployment, compared to 418 all of last week.

The governor said most of the claims came from workers in the state's oil and gas industry, which has been rocked by exceedingly lower crude oil prices. Burgum said he expected more claims from the retail and hospitality industries to come in over the next few days. He also said his office was working to "eliminate red tape," so Job Service North Dakota could process and pay out claims faster.

The first-term Republican said Friday he had signed an executive order asking all state agencies to submit proposals for eliminating regulations that have hindered the state's ability to react to the shockwaves sent through the medical and business communities over the last week.

Burgum also announced Thursday the state's 175 public and private school districts will remain closed indefinitely in an effort to increase "social distancing" by limiting situations in which the virus can spread easily between people. Schools have been shuttered since the beginning of the week.

The governor said he would be signing an executive order that allows virtual learning to count toward instructional hours for schools across the state. State law currently has some restrictions regarding virtual learning, but Burgum said his order would allow districts to come up with "innovative education plans" by Friday, March 27, for consideration by the Department of Public Instruction. If approved, districts could begin holding remote classes the following week.

Hundreds of public events and meetings in North Dakota, including the high school state basketball tournaments, political party conventions and the Fargo Marathon, have been canceled or postponed to prevent mass gatherings during the epidemic.

State and national health officials have repeatedly said taking these kinds of actions could help prevent a sudden outbreak of COVID-19 that overwhelms the health care system.

Burgum referred Friday to a health department graphic that signals the state has 286 ventilators, but he directly answer how many are currently available to be used on COVID-19 patients. The machines, which mechanically deliver breaths to someone who cannot breathe, are often critical in saving COVID-19 patients and have been in short supply worldwide since the pandemic began spreading.

He also mentioned that if the state runs out of hospital beds due to a worsening of the outbreak, college dormitories can be converted to temporary COVID-19 treatment facilities.

State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte said Friday the state lab would shortly be receiving more test kit swabs, which had been in shortage a few days ago. She said South Dakota was sending over 1,000 swabs and the federal government would be providing about 4,000 more in the coming days.

Every state now has at least five confirmed cases of the illness, and some states like Washington, New York and California have more than 1,000 known cases. Minnesota had 115 known cases, and South Dakota had announced 14 positive tests and one death as of Friday morning.

People can help protect themselves from the spread of the virus by diligently practicing preventative behaviors, like avoiding crowds, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands frequently with soap and water and cleaning commonly touched surfaces.

Symptoms of COVID-19 in those who have been exposed can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.

Reported illnesses have ranged from people with few to no symptoms to people becoming severely ill and dying. People who think they may have COVID-19 should call their health care provider first before going to the clinic, unless it’s an emergency.

Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, like heart disease, diabetes or lung disease, are at a greater risk of suffering a serious illness or death from the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For questions related to COVID-19, the public can call the health department hotline at 866-207-2880 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Individuals who need medical advice should contact their health care provider.

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