BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum announced on Wednesday, Sept. 23, that Cass County will be moving up to the "moderate" COVID-19 risk level as cases in the Fargo area continue to spike.
Burgum decided last week not to move Cass up to the "yellow" designation despite the county meeting two of the main criteria for the higher risk level. The governor said he decided to move Cass up to yellow Wednesday because he wanted to wait a few weeks after the state overhauled the risk level system to make county-level judgments.
New cases and infection rates have risen sharply in the county over the last month. Cass County now has the second most active COVID-19 cases in North Dakota behind Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck.
The move to the yellow designation for Cass County does not trigger any legal mandates on businesses, but it changes the state's recommendations for restaurants and large gatherings. Bars and restaurants in the county are advised to serve only up to 50% of normal capacity, while large venues are urged to hold no more than 250 people at 50% of normal capacity. Burgum added last week that the yellow-coded guidelines now include a recommendation for public-facing employees to wear masks. The new recommendations will go into effect on Friday morning.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki confirmed to Forum News Service that the guidelines for large venues would apply to the North Dakota State University football game against the University of Central Arkansas slated for Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Fargodome. The university has said it would allow 10,000 fans at the arena, but NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said last week the crowd will be closer to 8,400 because some season-ticket holders didn't want tickets. A university spokeswoman could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Along with Cass, seven other counties are moving from the low to moderate risk level, including Stutsman County, which includes Jamestown, and Emmons County, which has the state's highest 14-day positivity rate.
Another six counties that are already in the yellow category are "approaching high risk" because of spikes in COVID-19 cases, the governor said. However, he declined to move the counties, which include Burleigh and Stark, to the orange designation despite them meeting the most of the criteria for high-risk counties. The orange designation would restrict large gatherings and dine-in restaurant and bar services, and close gyms, barbershops, nail salons and massage therapy centers.
Burgum said his administration contacted several communities Tuesday night about bringing local leaders together to coordinate a virus response, though he did not name the communities.
The amended risk levels mean 16 counties are in the yellow category, 25 are in the green category and 12 are in the blue "new normal" category.
North Dakota hits new high for active cases
The North Dakota Department of Health on Wednesday reported a record high in active cases, seven deaths and 475 new infections.
Health officials confirmed the deaths of two Burleigh County women, a Morton County man, a Morton County woman, a Stark County woman, a Williams County woman and a Bottineau County man. All of the residents were in their 80s and 90s, and like the vast majority of North Dakotans who have succumbed to the illness, the recently deceased all had underlying health conditions, according to the department.
The department says 203 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 60 residents whose deaths have been announced just in September alone. It's now the deadliest month of the pandemic for North Dakota with more than a week to go.
More than half of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and some western North Dakota facilities are now seeing even worse outbreaks than Fargo nursing homes had at the beginning of the pandemic, said Chris Jones, the director of the Department of Human Services.
There are now 3,302 residents known to be infected with the virus — a pandemic high.
North Dakota, which surpassed 3,000 active cases over the weekend, leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the last week, according to the New York Times. The whole region is experiencing a surge in cases, with South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Minnesota all identified by the publication as states where infections are "high and staying high."
The number of hospitalized residents dropped by three from Tuesday to 89. Twenty-five patients are in intensive care.
Eighty-two of the new cases reported Wednesday came from Cass County, which includes Fargo. The state's most populous county has 565 active cases. North Dakota State University has reported 98 cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks.
Seventy-nine of the new cases came from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county has the most active cases in the state with 640. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 30 new cases and has 254 active cases.
Williams County, which includes Williston, reported 57 new cases, bringing its active case count to 232.
Forty-six of the new cases came from Ward County, which encompasses Minot. The county now has 199 active cases.
Twenty-five of the new cases came from Stark County, which includes Dickinson. The county now has 306 active cases.
Forty-two of the state's 53 counties reported at least one case Wednesday, including many small, rural counties. All but three counties have at least one active case.
About 6.8% of the 6,951 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 14.3% of residents tested for the first time got a positive result.
North Dakota does not report a seven-day rolling average for positivity rate, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 6.4% for all residents tested and 11.8% for tests taken on previously untested residents.
State tightens quarantine order for close contacts
Burgum also announced Wednesday that the state will now require people identified as close contacts of known COVID-19 cases to quarantine at home for 14 days.
Interim State Health Officer Paul Mariani expanded the quarantine order to all close contacts from what previously included only household contacts of known positives. Local law enforcement will be tasked with carrying out the order.
Burgum noted that it is extremely important that close contacts stay away from other members of the public because as many as a third of all close contacts identified by contact tracers ended up testing positive for the illness. Health officials have said in the past that residents not complying with requests to quarantine has been an issue.
Mariani's amended order excludes essential workers as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
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