BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has announced an extension to a statewide mask mandate and restrictions on public-facing businesses as the state begins to rein in its once worst-in-the-nation COVID-19 outbreak.
Burgum announced on Wednesday, Dec. 9, the mask measure will stay in place until at least Jan. 18, while occupancy restrictions on restaurants, bars and event venues will last until Jan. 8. The Republican, who once opposed mask requirements, said the mitigation efforts "appear to be working" to take pressure off of the state's hospital system and nursing homes.
The governor also announced Wednesday that high school sports competitions will be allowed to resume Dec. 14. He credited North Dakotans with saving winter sports seasons by taking proper precautions and bringing COVID-19 case counts down over the last month. By starting up sports again, Burgum said the state is accepting some added risk that the virus will spread among teams and spectators.
When Burgum initially announced on Nov. 13 that residents would be required to wear a face covering in public areas, he said major strains on North Dakota hospitals due to staffing shortages and rising COVID-19 cases led to his change of course on the issue. Burgum said hospitals are still fighting to keep up with high admissions, and the measures extended Wednesday are intended to continue alleviating stress on the health care system.
North Dakota doctors and public health experts backed an extension to the mask mandate, saying the measure has contributed to the more than 50% drop in active COVID-19 cases the state has seen since mid November.
The restrictions on North Dakota's restaurants and bars include a requirement to limit on-site service to 50% of their normal occupancy, while capping the number of patrons served at 150. The establishments also must be closed to on-site service from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Event venues and ballrooms are limited to 25% of normal maximum occupancy.
Burgum said the earlier expiration date for the business restrictions is aimed at allowing North Dakota business owners to fully regain their livelihoods as soon as possible. He added that the mask mandate doesn't have much of an economic impact on North Dakotans, so maintaining it for longer is not as harmful as business restrictions. The governor didn't rule out further extending the measures if hospitals remain overburdened.
While North Dakota is on the right track to getting the virus under control, Burgum said it isn’t out of the woods yet. The state still ranks among the top states in the country in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although North Dakota’s active cases have fallen sharply, rates of virus-related hospitalizations and deaths — often considered lagging indicators of an outbreak — remain among the highest in the nation.
Burgum urged North Dakotans to continue seeking COVID-19 testing, wearing masks and isolating when sick. He said the state and country are in “the home stretch” with vaccines expected to become widely available within the next few months.
North Dakota immunization manager Molly Howell said Wednesday the state is expecting nearly 7,000 doses of the vaccine as soon as this weekend. Health Department spokeswoman Nicole Peske said the state tentatively plans to vaccinate its first resident next week.
Howell estimated the state will receive 40,000 doses of the vaccines from pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will likely approve both vaccines for emergency use in the coming days. Both vaccines require people to take two doses to get maximum immunity to the virus.
With the incoming doses, Howell said the state hopes to get first doses to all nursing home and long-term care residents and about 60% of health care workers this month. She said immunizations likely won't be available to the broader public until next spring, though children and pregnant women will have to wait a little longer because the original medical trials did not include those demographics. The vaccine will be free to anyone who wants it, Howell said.
State reports 16 COVID-19 deaths
Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health announced 16 COVID-19 deaths but another overall drop in active cases.
The deaths came from all over the state, including four from Burleigh County, three from Stutsman County, two from Ward County, two from Ramsey County and one each from Dickey, Grand Forks, McKenzie, Traill and Walsh counties.
The department says 1,080 North Dakotans have succumbed to the illness since March. November was by far North Dakota's deadliest month of the pandemic, but December has seen a similarly high rate of virus-related deaths.
At least 622 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. There are nearly 240 infected nursing home residents in the state, and six facilities have double-digit active cases in residents, including Benedictine Living Community in Garrison where 19 residents are known to have COVID-19.
Over the last month, active COVID-19 cases have steadily declined from more than 10,000 in mid November. Now, 4,554 North Dakotans are known to be infected with the virus, marking a drop of more than 220 from Tuesday, Dec. 8. Burgum said he wouldn't trade North Dakota's virus situation with any other state given the trend of shrinking active cases. Most other states are seeing increased case counts like North Dakota did from August to November.
Even as active infections drop, hospitals are still dealing with high COVID-19 admissions. There are 284 residents hospitalized due to the illness, down 44 over the previous day.
The state's hospitals are still struggling with severe staffing crunches, and available hospital beds are scarce. Many nurses have been sidelined by the virus in recent months, exacerbating a nursing shortage that dates back to before the pandemic.
Epidemiologists often consider COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations to be lagging indicators of an outbreak, meaning they may not be affected by increasing or decreasing case counts until several weeks after the fact.
On Wednesday, the health department reported 473 new cases, including:
- 116 from Cass County, which includes Fargo.
- 52 from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck.
- 51 from Grand Forks County.
About 7.5% of the about 6,000 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, and an average of 9.4% of those tested in the last two weeks got a positive result. Like active cases, the state's positivity rate has decreased in the last months.
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