BISMARCK — The state's capital and its surrounding areas are seeing a rapid increase in the number of residents testing positive for COVID-19, and local health officials are upping efforts to ensure this spike does not mirror the outbreak the Fargo-Moorhead area experienced nearly three months ago.

Officials from Burleigh and Morton County said the highest age group testing positive for COVID-19 is adults ages 21-30. Renae Moch, director of Burleigh-Bismarck Public Health, said Burleigh County is experiencing this increase now because of Fourth of July celebrations in which some residents participated in large gatherings.

"That's kind of been our concern ... people at the Fourth of July for the large gatherings and family gatherings," Moch said. "We're starting to see the impacts of that here in Burleigh County."

Burleigh County has more than double the number of active cases of any county in the state with 285 cases, according to North Dakota Department of Health numbers reported Wednesday, July 29. About 4% of the county's tests results are coming back positive — about twice the entire state's reported positivity rate, Moch said.

The community's health care front-line workers are included in this increase, and as of Wednesday about 60-65 of the 3,000 Sanford Health Bismarck employees have tested positive for the illness or have been exposed to it and are in quarantine, said Michael LeBeau, president of Sanford Health Bismarck.

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Bismarck's other major medical center, CHI St. Alexius Health, currently has seven employees in self-quarantine, said Kurt Schley, the center's president.

On Tuesday, Gov. Doug Burgum announced the formation of the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force, which will aim to tackle the worsening coronavirus outbreak in the Bismarck area. Members of the task force are not yet determined, but its primary goal is to drive down the rolling average of residents testing positive for COVID-19.

The new task force will be funded by CARES Act money, in which the state has designated $20 million for local public health departments, said Tammy Miller the governor's chief operating officer.

In total, the state has conducted more than 53,000 tests in Burleigh and Morton County.

North Dakota has seen cases steadily rising the past few weeks and had 1,038 active cases as of Wednesday. At a press conference Tuesday, Burgum said the state is not moving from "low" to "moderate" risk level, which would bring back precautionary guidelines for businesses to follow. Burgum said moving up in risk level depends on 11 variables, but he offered little insight into his decision-making on the topic.

Moch said Wednesday Burleigh and Morton County will increase efforts to inform residents to properly social distance, wear masks and wash hands.

"I know ... it's time for vacations, family reunions and such. Just give a second thought if that's really a good idea for the number of people you have coming together," Moch said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member at mgriffith@forumcomm.com