BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum and the North Dakota Department of Health confirmed three new cases of coronavirus Monday, March 23. The state now has 33 known cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
The department announced a Burleigh County woman in her 30s, and a Walsh county man in 70s tested positive for the virus. It's the first case in Walsh County, which lies just north of Grand Forks County in the northeast corner of the state.
Burgum said a third person also tested positive Monday, but no additional information on the person was available at the time of his 4 p.m. press conference.
Four patients remain hospitalized for the illness, and 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. Only 85 people were tested since Sunday, but Burgum said he expected more test to come in tomorrow.
The state lab processed so few tests Monday because the machines used to produce results are on different rotations, and some tests may not have been processed in time for the latest update, department spokeswoman Nicole Peske said. Burgum also speculated Monday that fewer people may have sought testing over the weekend.
Burgum said Monday that the state lab has processed tests from 48 of 53 counties, and he has previously noted that rural communities are not immune to the disease. There are now a combined three cases in Pierce and Walsh counties, which have no cities of more than 5,000 people.
The governor said North Dakota cannot become complacent with news of few positive tests in the last few days because the state is waging "a logistical battle" to ensure medical facilities, equipment and staff are ready for a potential jump in cases.
"Each day we have low count here, it gives North Dakotans another chance to prepare," Burgum said Monday. "We might be weeks away from when we would have crunch on our medical capacity, but each day that we get a chance to do more planning and more work is a life-saving day."
Burgum said Monday that state health officials are trying 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. There are now 123 state and local health officials and North Dakota State University students trained to perform contact tracing.
A total of 1,440 people have been tested for the virus in North Dakota, and seven counties have at least one known case of the illness, with the bulk of the cases coming from Burleigh and Morton counties, which includes the Bismarck-Mandan area.
Cass County has one confirmed case, but Burgum said Sunday 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. Monday's unidentified positive test was among the first 30 returned test results from Quest, but it is unknown whether the person lives in Cass County.
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 encouraged to provide takeout, drive-thru and delivery services during the outbreak.
The move came 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. Since last Wednesday, Job Service North Dakota received about 8,100 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 and alternative 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 "distance learning" plans by Friday, March 27, for consideration by the Department of Public Instruction. If approved, districts could begin holding remote classes the following week. Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel said Monday about 15 to 20 districts have already submitted plans.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler announced Monday her department was seeking a waiver for all federally mandated tests for the rest of the semester. She also said the education department is canceling the North Dakota state assessments and the ACT make-up test for high school juniors, who will receive a voucher to take the test at a later date.
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.
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. The health department's website says priority for testing goes to people hospitalized with a respiratory illness, health care workers, those believed to be exposed through contact with a positive case and people living or working in nursing homes and other group settings.
Every state now has at least 15 confirmed cases of the illness — New York State has been hit the hardest, with more than 15,000 known cases and more than 100 deaths. Minnesota has 235 known cases and one death, and South Dakota had announced 28 positive tests and one death as of Monday evening.
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