BISMARCK — After almost 3,000 of North Dakota's first responders and health care workers applied for funds to help cover their COVID-19-related medical expenses, the state stopped accepting applications Wednesday, Dec. 16, due to the "overwhelming response."

Earlier this month, the North Dakota Legislature approved allocating $2.5 million of the state's federal pandemic stimulus funds to create the Medical Expense Assistance Program to help first responders and front-line health care workers pay for COVID-19 expenses. Applicants could only qualify for the funds if they tested positive for COVID-19, and had not applied or were rejected for worker's compensation.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce, which is administering the program, issued a statement Wednesday saying it did not anticipate so many applications in one week.

As of noon on Wednesday, the department had received 2,916 applications, of which 1,564 were awarded funds. The department said the remaining 1,352 applications "will go through the review process," and that all funds will need to be distributed by Dec. 30.

The department said it stopped taking applications because it's anticipated the number of applications received will use up the entire $2.5 million. The program will be reinstated if more federal pandemic stimulus funds are provided, according to the department.

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The influx of applications shows that thousands of the state's health care workers and first responders have tested positive for COVID-19, though it's not known whether they were infected while working.

The state Department of Health does not disclose the identity or occupation of all individuals who have tested positive for the virus, so it is difficult to tell how many North Dakota health care workers and first responders have had COVID-19.

However, it's confirmed that at least 172 employees of long-term care facilities in North Dakota had active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to the Department of Health.

In October, a staff member of the Good Samaritan nursing home in Bottineau died with COVID-19. The staff member may be the first and only confirmed COVID-19 death of a North Dakota health care worker so far.

Eligible front-line and health care workers may have qualified for up to $5,000 in funds from the Medical Expense Assistance Program (MEAP), but the average applicant applied for $1,000 in aid, the Department of Commerce said.

Applicants can check the status of their application at the online MEAP portal or contact the MEAP hotline at meap@nd.gov or 701-328-6004 with questions.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.