BISMARCK — Nurses from the North Dakota Nurses Association urged Gov. Doug Burgum to hold the line on the state's new mask mandate in a press conference Friday, Nov. 20, stressing that widespread compliance with the new order will be crucial to keep an overburdened hospital system afloat through the winter.

Painting a nightmare picture inside hospitals at their breaking point, representatives from the health care association said nurses have been asked to take shortcuts to stave off the costs of North Dakota's hospital staffing shortages, sometimes risking their own safety or compromising complete patient care in the process.

Tessa Johnson, president of the nurse's association, said she fears that the backlash from legislators and members of the North Dakota community to the state's new direct intervention measures could prompt Burgum to walk back the state's mask mandate or business curfews. A week ago the governor announced a new statewide mask mandate and limitations on gatherings to control the state's surging outbreak, but earlier this week he went back on some restrictions around high school sports practices.

"Now is not the time to back down, we beg you," Johnson said, urging that Burgum and government leaders make COVID-19 mitigation "the only option for residents of North Dakota" in order to stem the spread of the virus at a crucial point ahead of the holidays.

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Nurses on the call also reiterated their opposition to Burgum's last-resort decision, announced early last week, to approve asymptomatic COVID-19 positive nurses to work in hospital virus units. The governor said he made the decision to help mitigate the state's staffing crisis. But the move became a national signifier of North Dakota's worst-in-class virus outbreak and was promptly rejected by NDNA and another North Dakota nurses union.

"Our hospitals and our health care centers across our state are being stretched to the breaking point," Johnson said. "Because of our failure to respond in a timely manner to the threat of COVID-19 with real, evidence-based mitigation strategies at the state level, we are now desperately trying to play catch-up and find ourselves in a true crisis."

In many cases, Johnson testified, North Dakota nurses have been asked to cut corners to make up for the extreme staffing shortages in their hospitals. She said nurses are regularly called on to work overtime in specialty areas beyond their training and noted shortages of personal protective equipment have forced many nurses to reuse safety gear intended for single use.

In order to preserve care in North Dakota hospitals, Johnson called on Burgum to talk with front-line workers and NDNA members for guidance in the state's health care decisions, noting that the governor has so far not reached out to their organization.

"We need our governor to listen to the voices of nurses and health care professionals in making decisions about COVID-19 in our state," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.