BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Health announced only four new positive tests for coronavirus Sunday, March 29, a day after confirming a single-day high of 26 cases. A total of 98 people in the state have tested positive but the department's website lists 19 people as having recovered from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

The health department dramatically narrowed the scope of a quarantine order Sunday, not even 24 hours after it was first announced.

On Saturday, State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte ordered travelers returning from international travel or 23 hard-hit states, including California, Arizona, New York and Florida, to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Originally, the order applied to residents who have returned to North Dakota in the last 14 days and those who will return in the future, but a Sunday morning amendment removes the quarantine requirement for people who have already returned. Department spokeswoman Nicole Peske said the change was made to reduce confusion, in part, for travelers who had already returned and gone back to work.

The amendment also makes workers in nearly 20 broad sectors exempt from the quarantine requirement. The sectors including health care, agriculture, energy and "commercial facilities." Peske said the quarantine requirement for workers could be reimplemented in the future.

The department is now asking returning travelers in this category to limit interactions with others and monitor themselves for symptoms over the next two weeks. Peske said the quarantine requirement for workers could be reimplemented in the future.

The new exemptions to the order notably leave out two groups that Gov. Doug Burgum has repeatedly asked to self-isolate: retired "snowbirds" returning from winter homes and college students returning from spring break trips.

Local law enforcement and the State Highway Patrol are charged with enforcing the order, Tufte said. Violators could face Class B misdemeanor charges, but the watering down of the order raises significant questions over whether the order can actually be enforced. Peske said in an email to Forum News Service the amendment did not make the order less enforceable, but she offered no additional commentary.

Burgum also asked President Donald Trump on Sunday morning to declare a major disaster for the state in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Approval of the request would unlock several federal funding sources that may include crisis counseling for people affected by the pandemic and other streams of direct federal assistance for state, tribal and local governments.

Statistical models suggest about 152,000 residents, or 20% of the state's population, could become infected with COVID-19 over an 18-month period, Burgum wrote in the request. In that worst-case scenario, the state would have significantly ramp up the capacity of its health care system by establishing temporary hospitals at North Dakota State University in Fargo and Bismarck State College.

However, Burgum stated Saturday he has "very low confidence" in the accuracy of current modeling because of the limited amount of data collected on the virus in North Dakota.

The new cases announced Sunday include a Stark County man in his 30s, a Morton County man in his 80s and two Cass County women, one in her 30s and another in her 40s. One of the cases in Cass County has been classified as community spread, meaning the virus was not contracted through travel or exposure to a known case and implies that someone else in a community has the illness but has not yet been tested.

Eighteen patients are now hospitalized with the illness, and Burgum announced Friday a Cass County man in his 90s was the state's first fatality.

Sanford Health announced Sunday that three employees at two of its Fargo facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. The three physical therapists work in hospital settings — two at Sanford Medical Center Fargo along Interstate 94 and one at Sanford Broadway Medical Center downtown. The employees are isolating at home, and Sanford is working closely with the state Department of Health to evaluate the situation, Sanford announced in a news release attributed to Dr. Doug Griffin, vice president and medical officer at Sanford Fargo.

A total of 3,626 tests for the virus have been reported to the state, and 18 counties have at least one known case of the illness. Nearly half of the positive tests have come from Burleigh and Morton counties, which includes the Bismarck-Mandan area, but cases have recently been climbing in Cass County. However, Burgum has previously said that the cases are reported based on patients' mailing addresses, rather than their actual location in the state.

Every state now has at least 50 confirmed cases of the illness — New York State has been hit the hardest, with more than 53,000 known cases and more than 780 deaths. Minnesota has 503 known cases and nine deaths, and South Dakota had announced 90 positive tests and one death as of Sunday afternoon. The Dakotas have among the lowest numbers of positive tests in the country.

As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.