FARGO — At a glance, the comparisons between North Dakota and Minnesota coronavirus cases are startling, and although the math doesn’t lie, the numbers also don’t tell the whole truth, experts say.
With 173 positive cases of COVID-19 in North Dakota and 5,798 people tested, the state has a rate of 2.3 positive cases for every 10,000 residents.
Minnesota, which has 789 positive cases with 24,227 people tested, has a rate of 1.4 positive cases per 10,000 residents.
Deborah White, a professor of social statistics at Minnesota State University Moorhead, noticed this disparity and recently posted about it on Facebook. The figures show that North Dakota’s infection rate from COVID-19 is higher than Minnesota, which has a denser population. It's worth noting that North Dakota is one of a handful of states that has not issued a stay-at-home order or closed non-essential businesses in response to the pandemic.
“I was just at home and crunching the numbers. One big thing even when I was looking at it, there’s data we don’t have, we don’t know, like we don’t know how many people didn’t get a test,” White said.
She later compared Cass County, N.D., and Clay County, Minn., and found even more alarming numbers.
“It’s an apple-to-apple comparison,” White said. In a Facebook post she added: “Our two communities are alike in many ways and share the same access to testing and medical care. There are two important differences: 1. Clay County began to mandate social distancing sooner and 2. Cass County is more densely populated.”
White, who's also a Moorhead city councilwoman, said she found the statistical analysis “jarring.” She’s not speaking in an official capacity, but is worried that her neighboring state, North Dakota, isn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.
Clay County, with an estimated population of 64,222 has eight confirmed cases of COVID-19, which means 1.2 per 10,000 residents have been infected. The more populous Cass County with an estimated 181,293 people has 46 confirmed cases so far, which means 2.5 per 10,000 residents have been infected.
Although the numbers aren't wrong, the difference doesn't necessarily mean that North Dakotans are in more danger than Minnesotans, said Dr. Paul Carson, an NDSU professor and director of infection prevention and control at Sanford Health in Fargo.
“Our incidence curve is staying pretty flat, where much of the country is doubling every two to five days,” Carson said. “And, we have tested our population at a rate of 6/1,000, where Minnesota has only tested 3.7/1,000 of their population, much lower than us, so we can’t really say with any certainty what is going on with their epidemic.”
If a fourth person dies from the pandemic in North Dakota, the data will be skewed “dramatically” due to the much lower population in the state, Carson said.
“What I am pleased about is the aggressive push that the (North Dakota Department of Health) has been doing to increase our testing capacity, and we are at a much better place with that than the rest of the country,” Carson said.
Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesotans to stay at home from March 25 until April 10, which effectively shut down the state.
During a news conference on Wednesday, April 1, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum addressed the topic of a stay-at-home order, saying such a directive is not out of the realm of possibilities. On Thursday, Burgum added that he's received calls that because he has not ordered a statewide shutdown, he is putting neighboring states at risk.
"But we're among the best — meaning we have a low percentage of positive tests," Burgum said. "We're doing a better job at testing .... We've completed 5.9 tests per 1,000 population. We're in the top 10, and with the plans we got in place, we want to stay in the top 10. Success depends on slowing the spread of the virus."
Burgum again encouraged people in counties where the coronavirus has not been detected yet to adhere to regulations of no more than 10 people in a group. "Even in our communities where you don't think it's reached you yet, please act like it's already there," he said.
Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Burgum’s office, said comparing state numbers of positive tests per capita is not a useful indicator if one state has done far more tests per capita than the other. North Dakota has tested 76.1 out of 10,000 people, while Minnesota has tested 42.5 per 10,000 people, a Forum analysis found.
But White asks a different question.
“North Dakota was in the top 10 for testing, but I wonder if that doesn’t present a false sense of security, saying that ‘We’re on top of it,’ especially since Minnesota is not that far behind North Dakota, when I looked at it. It’s not that they’re being that much more aggressive in testing in North Dakota than we are in Minnesota,” White said.
“I don’t envision this as Central Park, and having hospitals set up in Fargo parks, but I know it wouldn't be that hard for our health care providers to get overwhelmed. People need to take this more seriously.”
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney agreed that people are not taking social distancing seriously enough. Cellphone tracking data shows Minnesotans are graded much higher than North Dakotans at staying at home, he said.
"We need to step up our game because I don't think people are listening as well as they should," Mahoney said.
Forum reporter April Baumgarten contributed to this report.