BISMARCK — As North Dakota suffers through the harshest days of the pandemic to date, Gov. Doug Burgum again declined on Thursday, Oct. 8, to bump up the COVID-19 risk level for a handful of counties with high infection rates and case counts.

The lack of movement on risk levels defies the Burgum administration’s own criteria, and critics are calling the governor’s color-coded system “unscientific” and “totally arbitrary.”

Five rural counties currently in the “yellow” risk level — Emmons, Dickey, Golden Valley, Grant and McHenry — meet or exceed two of the three main criteria of the “critical” risk level, which comes with a stay-at-home order if implemented.

In Emmons County, an average of 21.4% of tests for COVID-19 have come back positive in the last two weeks, far exceeding the 15% threshold of a critical-risk county.

The color-coded key for North Dakota's COVID-19 risk level system is seen. Screenshot via North Dakota Response website
The color-coded key for North Dakota's COVID-19 risk level system is seen. Screenshot via North Dakota Response website

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Another nine yellow-designated counties, including Stark and Williams, meet or exceed two criteria for the “high” or “orange” risk level, which would mean closures of barbershops, nail salons and gyms and a suspension of in-house service at restaurants and bars.

Burgum said last month he would closely watch Williams County, which includes Williston, and even noted the county was approaching a higher risk level. Since then, active cases per capita and the rate of positive tests have shot up even further as the county remains in the yellow designation.

When asked Thursday why the state is not following its own guidelines, the Republican governor said his administration “takes a look at things holistically, not just numerically, when we make these decisions.” He noted that some of the low-population counties don’t have many cases of COVID-19 despite their high positivity rates.

“We’re applying judgment to the framework, so that we, again, take action that reduces the most number of transmissible moments with the least amount of negative impact on people that probably aren’t really involved in transmission,” Burgum said.

North Dakota's official COVID-19 risk map shows counties in three levels from blue, or "new normal" to yellow, or "moderate risk." There are no counties in the orange or red designations despite a handful of counties meeting the criteria. Screenshot via North Dakota Response website
North Dakota's official COVID-19 risk map shows counties in three levels from blue, or "new normal" to yellow, or "moderate risk." There are no counties in the orange or red designations despite a handful of counties meeting the criteria. Screenshot via North Dakota Response website

Shelley Lenz, who is running against Burgum on the Democratic-NPL ticket, said her opponent’s refusal to follow the criteria he designed shows a lack of leadership in the face of an unchecked crisis. Lenz charged Burgum with eroding public trust in the government and confusing residents with arbitrary risk-level designations.

The western North Dakota veterinarian added that she knows imposing business closures in hard-hit counties would be “politically unpopular” for Burgum, but a true leader makes hard decisions in the public's best interest.

Mandan resident Jenn Kary is a frequent critic of Burgum’s risk levels and has used her background in geographic information systems to share her own risk-level maps on a Facebook page called “North Dakota Covid-19 Statistics - unofficial.”

Kary said Burgum’s “holistic approach” to evaluating risk levels differently for each county doesn’t follow a scientific method and sends unclear messages about the actual risk of COVID-19 to residents. She said the state’s color-coded maps are especially misleading because “most people aren’t going to look at the numbers, but they understand maps and colors.”

When making maps, the colors used to represent data are very important, she said. For instance, coloring a desert green might put visitors in peril when they arrive prepared for grasslands. Kary said the yellow-colored counties that should be filled in orange or red are falsely signaling to residents that there isn’t much danger from COVID-19.

She said the governor seems unwilling to move counties up to their proper risk levels because his main concern is keeping the economy open rather than maintaining public health.

Burgum added Thursday that his office will change the state’s guidelines for each risk-level designation next week to reflect that large gatherings, like sporting events and church services, are causing much more spread of the virus than patronage at hair salons and other personal care businesses.

State reports record active cases, youngest death

Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health reported six deaths from COVID-19 and record-high numbers of active cases and virus-related hospitalizations.

Health officials confirmed the state's youngest death of the pandemic: a Mountrail County female between the ages of 10 and 19 who had underlying health conditions.

Officials also reported the deaths of a Burleigh County woman, a Stark County woman, a Ward County woman and two Ward County men. All but one of the deceased residents was at least 80 years old.

The department says 310 North Dakotans have succumbed to the illness, and deaths have been mounting at rapid pace over the last month. Wednesday brought news of 24 deaths across the state — by far the most announced in a single day. Burgum said Thursday he hopes this "painful week" marks the darkest days of the pandemic.

At least 190 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, many of which have been decimated by the virus in the last two months. Five facilities, including three in rural areas, have more than a dozen infected residents.

There are now 3,832 residents known to be infected with the virus — a new pandemic record.

North Dakota is second in the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the last week after only South Dakota, 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 with the illness rose on Thursday to 125 — a new pandemic high. Twenty-seven North Dakotans with the virus are in intensive care.

The state is battling through a shortage of available hospital beds as COVID-19 hospitalizations converge with strains on health care staffing and high non-coronavirus admissions. There are 30 available intensive care beds and 231 regular, inpatient beds in the whole state, according to the latest figures from the department.

The health department reported 531 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.

More than 40 counties reported at least one case Thursday, including many small, rural counties.

Cass County, which includes Fargo, reported more than 137 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. The state's most populous county has 687 active cases, now the most in the state.

Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 90 new cases Thursday. The county has the second most active cases in the state with 660. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 20 new cases and has 232 active cases.

Forty-nine new cases came from Stark County, which includes Dickinson. The county's active case count sits at 279, the third highest in the state.

About 8.1% of the 6,566 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 16.4% 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 7.5% for all residents tested and 14.1% for tests taken on previously untested residents.

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