FARGO — Essentia Health is working to provide its own laboratory testing for the coronavirus as Clay County recorded its third confirmed case of COVID-19 and Cass County logged its sixth positive case.

The announcements on Wednesday, March 25, were made during briefings by local leaders, including public health officials and health providers as preparations to contain the coronavirus mount.

Clay County’s third confirmed COVID-19 case, a man in his 40s, was reported by the Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday.

Kathy McKay, administrator of Clay County Public Health, said she has not yet received details from the Minnesota Department of Health about whether the person is believed to have acquired the coronavirus infection through travel or by community spread.

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Clay County's two previous confirmed COVID-19 cases came from travel, one internationally and one domestically, she said.

"We know in Minnesota there is community spread," McKay said, but acknowledged that limited testing for the coronavirus provides an incomplete picture of how prevalent the virus is.

Three new positive cases in Cass County — a woman and two men, all in their 50s — were among nine new confirmed cases announced by the North Dakota Department of Health on Wednesday. One of the men in his 50s was possibly infected through traveling. The other two cases are under investigation.

North Dakota now has 45 people who have tested positive for COVID-19, including 18 in Burleigh County and eight in adjacent Morton County, which include Bismarck-Mandan.

Dr. Richard Vetter, Essentia’s chief medical officer in Fargo, said the health system expects to be able to do its own laboratory testing for coronavirus infections soon.

“We continue to work on in-house testing,” he said. “We think we will have in-house testing in the next couple of weeks.”

Sanford Health started its own laboratory testing earlier this week, with the capability of performing 400 tests daily for its health system — with plans to double that capacity, said Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford’s chief medical officer in Fargo.

“That gives us the ability to get faster results,” he said. Specimens are sent via courier to a Sanford lab in Sioux Falls, S.D., with results available in 24 to 48 hours.

Both Essentia and Sanford also can send specimens to the state health laboratories in North Dakota and Minnesota, with testing turnaround typically taking several days.

Sanford also has used a private testing firm, Quest, but that lab service has been working through a backlog that as of Wednesday stood at slightly more than 200 pending cases, down from 300 on Monday, and continues to diminish, said Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford’s chief medical officer in Fargo.

Sanford added 34 adult beds reserved for COVID-19 adult patients to 18 beds that had already been set aside. “We have plans to greatly expand that if ever needed,” he said.

North Dakota Department of Health Field Epidemiologist Brenton Nesemeier gives an update during a COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, March 25, at Fargo City Hall. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota Department of Health Field Epidemiologist Brenton Nesemeier gives an update during a COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, March 25, at Fargo City Hall. David Samson / The Forum

Sanford is evaluating clinic visits and nonessential surgeries and procedures on a case-by-case basis. Surgical volumes are down 30%, Griffin said, and clinic visits have dropped by 40%, while telehealth visits are rising.

“We’re encouraging our providers to use this capability for all patients where medically appropriate,” Griffin said of telehealth clinical visits.

Essentia’s suspension of routine clinic appointments and elective surgeries continues, and also encourages patients to use telehealth when appropriate.

Thus far, based on testing to date, community spread of the coronavirus appears limited around the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, McKay said.

Many people appear to be heeding officials’ call for people to stay at home as much as possible, including working at home if possible, avoiding groups and trying to stay at least six feet away from others.

“I think all the mitigation factors that are in place are working,” she said. “It just seems with all the messages a great portion are heeding that.”

Officials and health providers continue to urge people to wash their hands frequently and to maintain social distancing to slow the spread of the infection so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

“We just want to slow everything down to keep things in check,” McKay said.

Neither federal or state health officials have been able to offer any predictions about when the epidemic will peak in the region, she said.

A real-time counter tracks viewers watching the COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, March 25, at Fargo City Hall. David Samson / The Forum
A real-time counter tracks viewers watching the COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, March 25, at Fargo City Hall. David Samson / The Forum

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