BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Health confirmed two new cases of coronavirus on Sunday, March 22. The state now has 30 known cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
The new cases were found in a Burleigh County woman in her 30s and a Pierce County man in his 40s, who contracted the illness from someone who previously tested positive. A fourth patient has also been hospitalized with the illness.
The department is currently monitoring 73 people, most of whom were found to have had close contact with those who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Gov. Doug Burgum said Saturday that North Dakota has received tests from 48 of 53 counties and has tested almost as many people per capita as New York, a larger rate than surrounding states. However, he cautioned that testing results don’t necessarily reflect the current spread of coronavirus in the state.
“Testing is a lagging indicator, and the fact that we’ve got very few positives is not an indicator that the spread is not more widely than we think,” he said.
Burgum said Friday that the number of cases not doubling in the past few days could be a sign that some of the initial measures taken to improve "social distancing" 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."
Burgum said Sunday he directed state health officials to ramp up contact tracing, a process that aims to find people who have been exposed to someone known to have the illness. He said other governments, including a Japanese prefecture, have found success in slowing the virus' spread by finding those exposed to it and ensuring they isolate themselves from the rest of the population.
A total of 1,355 people have been tested for the virus in North Dakota, and six counties have at least one known case of the illness, with the bulk of the cases coming from Burleigh and Morton counties.
Cass County has one confirmed case, but Burgum said there are about 300 pending tests from the state's most populous county. The tests were sent by Sanford Health to Quest Diagnostics, an independent lab that has been overwhelmed by the volume of incoming samples. The test results were originally supposed to be returned in three days, but there is now a seven-day turnaround. Once the results of the 300 tests come back, Burgum said the number of known cases in Cass County will very likely increase.
Grand Forks County has no known cases, but Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Friday this is not for lack of testing. The number of tests performed in Grand Forks reflects its status as the state's third most populous county.
Burgum announced an executive order Thursday 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 Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Job Service North Dakota received a combined 4,800 claims for unemployment, compared to 418 all of the previous 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.
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.
All 11 North Dakota University System institutions will finish the semester through online courses. Burgum said Sunday that students returning from spring break trips to areas with high concentration of COVID-19 cases should self-quarantine if symptomatic and report their travel activity to the health department.
Hundreds of public events and meetings in North Dakota, including the high school state basketball tournaments, political party conventions and the Sanford 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 also announced an executive order Saturday, March 21, that allows licensed pharmacists to perform tests for COVID-19 if needed. He clarified Sunday that pharmacies would only be called on to test if traditional health care providers become unable to administer tests by themselves.
Two Bismarck health care executives said Saturday that private providers continue to prioritize patients with symptoms for testing because limited resources precludes testing people who are not showing signs of the illness.
Every state now has at least 10 confirmed cases of the illness, and some states like Washington, New York and California have more than 1,500 known cases. Minnesota has 169 known cases and one death, and South Dakota had announced 21 positive tests and one death as of Sunday morning.
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