BISMARCK — A week after rolling out a statewide mask mandate, Gov. Doug Burgum said Friday, Nov. 20, that he reversed on previous opposition to the policy in response to dwindling capacity in state hospitals and to preempt a potential health care staffing crunch after Thanksgiving.

Burgum's decision to impose an enforceable statewide mandate last week came in the wake of renewed national attention on North Dakota's worst-in-class outbreak, and marked an about-face from the governor's consistent rejections of the policy over the last two months.

"It was really tied back to hospital capacity, which we've said all along," Burgum said Friday, citing input from hospital officials around the state that pointed to an impending capacity crisis that could trail a sharp spike in new cases over the first 10 days of November.

And while the national spotlight zoomed in on North Dakota over the last two weeks, Burgum said that outside pressures did not factor into the decision to impose the mandate.

"It was a data-driven decision about the modelling on increased infections that drive hospitalizations," he said.

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The governor also stressed a critical window in the coming weeks to control the state's virus outbreak. While Burgum noted that recent reports about the potential availability of a vaccine have provided "a light at the end of the tunnel," he also stressed that North Dakota is currently experiencing some of its worst days of the pandemic. North Dakota has reported 25,000 new virus cases in November, a single month record with 10 days still to go, along with 111 virus deaths in just the last week.

Burgum also defended a decision earlier this week to backtrack on one portion of the pandemic rules, allowing high school sports practices to resume on Nov. 30 after a short reprieve. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who also spoke at the news conference, said they negotiated the return of high school sports practices as a compromise on the governor's original mandates after fielding constituent complaints on the new measures.

Earlier in the day Friday, representatives from the North Dakota Nurses Association urged Burgum to hold his line on the mask mandate and the business restrictions announced Nov. 13. "Now is not the time to back down, we beg you," said Tessa Johnson, the association's president. Members of the nurses union argued that strict adherence to the new statewide mandates will be crucial to keeping hospitals afloat.

Johnson 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. In some cases, Johnson testified, nurses have been called on to work overtime in specialty areas beyond their training and noted that shortages of personal protective equipment have forced many nurses to reuse safety gear intended for single use.

North Dakota clears 800 virus deaths, adds 1,400 new cases

North Dakota reported 23 new COVID-19 deaths on Friday, on top of a large disclosure of new positive cases. With the big wave of deaths recorded on Friday, the state climbed to a total of 818 virus deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The state Department of Health also reported an additional 13 virus hospitalizations, one day after Burgum announced the deployment of 120 civilian and Air Force nurses from out-of-state to address North Dakota's dire hospital staffing crisis.

As a fall surge of the pandemic has shattered previous national new case records in the last three weeks, North Dakota has held its place as the worst per capita outbreak in the country. The state has reported more COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita than any state in the nation over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With an average of 13 reported deaths per day this month, November is on track to be by far the deadliest month of the pandemic in North Dakota. Of the 818 virus deaths North Dakota has reported, 547 have come since the beginning of October.

The 23 deaths recorded in the Department of Health's latest report came from 10 different counties, including:

  • four deaths in Grand Forks;
  • three deaths in Barnes;
  • three deaths in Stutsman;
  • two deaths in Cass;
  • two deaths in Ramsey;
  • and single deaths in Hettinger, McLean, Richland and Stark counties.

The department also reported five deaths in Ward County, where Minot is managing one of the state's most severe outbreaks and Trinity Health, the city's lone hospital, has been at or near capacity for weeks.

North Dakota's strained hospital system cleared some new space in its COVID-19 units this week compared to pandemic highs over the previous two weeks. But even with the recent dip, COVID hospitalizations have converged with strains on health care staffing and high noncoronavirus admissions, leaving the state with an extreme shortage of staffed beds.

There were 13 available intensive care beds and 211 regular inpatient beds in the state, according to the Department of Health's latest figures, with just one ICU bed left in Bismarck and two left in Grand Forks. Between Fargo's three hospitals, North Dakota's most populous city had a total of seven ICU beds and zero inpatient beds.

On Friday, the Department of Health reported 1,408 new COVID positives, for 9,915 active cases statewide:

  • Cass County, which includes Fargo, disclosed 219 new cases on Friday. The county now has 1,582 active positives, making it the largest hot spot in the state.

  • Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 183 new cases. The county has 1,391 residents known to be infected with the virus.

  • Grand Forks County reported 153 new cases and now has 1,107 active positives.

  • Ward County, which includes Minot, reported 240 new cases and now has 1,178 active positives.

About 15% of the 9,392 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result. North Dakota does not report a seven day rolling average positivity rate, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 15%.

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

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