BISMARCK — The North Dakota Nurses Association has come out against a new policy that allows health care workers with asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 to continue working in COVID-19 units at hospitals and nursing homes.

A statement released Wednesday, Nov. 11, says the group objects to allowing nurses with the virus to continue working, noting that the choice to stay on the job while infected should belong to individual nurses rather than their employers. The group also says that all other public health measures to reduce the demand on the health care system should be implemented before the new policy, including mandating mask-wearing in public.

The North Dakota Emergency Nurses Association also made a statement urging a statewide mask mandate before allowing nurses with COVID-19 to care for patients. The group points out that the measure taken by the state to allow infected nurses to work is meant as a last resort, and not all other virus mitigation tools recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been used.

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Due to a major shortage of health care staffing, North Dakota's hospitals have a severe lack of available beds. Rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and high non-coronavirus admissions, some resulting from residents who deferred health care earlier in the pandemic, have caused the crunch on medical centers.

In an attempt to alleviate some of the staffing concerns, Burgum announced earlier this week that interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke amended an order to exempt health care workers from a mandatory quarantine period if they test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic. The move aligns with "crisis" guidelines from the CDC, but dozens of nurses have criticized the policy on social media.

Burgum said he didn't think the move would lead to more infection since infected nurses would only be caring for other people with COVID-19.

North Dakota is one of 16 states that does not have a statewide mask mandate, according to the AARP, and Burgum has repeatedly dismissed the idea, saying the state is relying on the "personal responsibility" of residents to voluntarily wear masks.

State averaging 12 deaths per day in November

The North Dakota Department of Health on Wednesday announced 12 more COVID-19 deaths and a record number of active cases.

The deaths came from all over the state, including three from Stutsman County, two from Ward County and one each from Cass, Burleigh, McHenry, Mountrail, Nelson, Ramsey and Ransom counties.

The department says 686 North Dakotans have succumbed to the illness since March, and deaths have been climbing at a rapid pace over the last three months. The state has averaged more than 12 deaths per day in November, making it tied for the second deadliest month of the pandemic with 20 days to go.

At least 383 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Eleven facilities have more than 15 active cases in residents, including Lutheran Sunset Homes in Grafton, which has 55 infected residents.

There are a pandemic-high 11,656 North Dakotans infected with COVID-19, including 254 residents who are hospitalized with the illness. Another 161 patients were initially hospitalized with some other ailment but later tested positive for COVID-19. Fifty-one residents with the virus are in intensive care.

North Dakota has reported the most COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the nation over the last week, according to the CDC. The whole region is experiencing a surge in cases, with Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Montana all seeing increasing cases.

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The state's hospitals are under severe staffing crunches, and available hospital beds are scarce. While only about 20% of the patients hospitalized in North Dakota have COVID-19, hospital administrators say the strain is mostly due to the extra staff and resources that must go to patients with the virus.

The Health Department reported 1,039 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. All but six of the state's 53 counties reported at least one new case.

Cass County, which includes Fargo, reported 341 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The state's most populous county has 1,920 infected residents.

Ward County, which includes Minot, reported 137 new cases, bringing the number of infected residents to 1,581.

Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 116 new cases Wednesday. The county again has the most active cases in the state with 1,659. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 38 new cases and has 546 active cases.

Stutsman County, which includes Jamestown reported 97 new cases, bringing its active case count to 512.

Grand Forks County reported 49 new cases, bringing its active case count up to 1,353.

About 18.2% of the 5,719 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, and an average of 15.5% of those tested in the last two weeks got a positive result.

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