BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has decided not to move Cass County up to the "moderate" COVID-19 risk level despite the county meeting two of the main criteria for the yellow-coded designation.
The county, which encompasses Fargo and West Fargo, has seen a dramatic rise in infections recently, including 237 new cases in just the last three days. Cass' active case count also sharply rose to 480 on Monday, giving it the second highest amount of any county in the state.
With the uptick, the currently "low-risk" county now meets the criteria for the yellow designation in active cases and the percentage of tests that come back positive. The county remains at a lower designation for the third principle criteria, the amount of tests performed on residents.
Burgum said at a news conference on Monday, Sept. 14, that Cass will not be joining eight other North Dakota counties at the yellow level because of the specific context of the Fargo area's outbreak.
The Republican governor said many of the cases in the state's largest metro area have come in young people, including North Dakota State University students, who are at a lower risk of suffering a serious illness from COVID-19. He added that other areas of high infection, like the Bismarck and Dickinson metros, are reporting a higher proportion of cases in residents over 70.
"We're trying to look at the data that underlines the top-level numbers," Burgum said. "In particular, where the case(s) spread by age is something we're looking at because that's going to determine whether we get pressure on hospitalizations."
A move up to the yellow designation for Cass County would not trigger any legal mandates on businesses, but it would change the state's recommendations for restaurants and large gatherings. Bars and restaurants in the counties are advised to serve only up to 50% of normal capacity, while large venues are urged to hold no more than 250 people at 50% of normal capacity. Burgum added Monday that the yellow-coded guidelines now include a recommendation for public-facing employees to wear masks.
Burgum noted that Cass County could become a candidate to move up a risk level if the spike in cases continues into next week.
The governor made no adjustments to any county's risk level Monday, but he noted his office will watch Stark and Williams counties carefully over the next week. Stark County, which includes Dickinson, exceeds the criteria for a moderate-risk county in active cases and positivity rate.
Burgum again rejected issuing a mask mandate for the state Monday despite pleading from top doctors.
The governor has repeatedly said the state is relying on "personal responsibility" rather than a government requirement to encourage mask-wearing, noting that residents should have the right not to wear a mask in public.
However, in a separate issue of public health versus personal freedoms, Burgum went the other way. The governor threw his support in 2018 behind an effort to tighten enforcement of seatbelt-wearing in cars. Opponents of a bill to ramp up seatbelt enforcement that failed during last year's legislative session argued residents have the freedom not to wear a seatbelt.
Burgum said he sees how someone could logically find his positions on the two issues to incompatible, but he added that he believes it's possible issuing a mask mandate would actually result in less mask-wearing by the public. Burgum said if that were the case with seatbelts, he would fall on the other side of that argument too.
A June study from Health Affairs concluded that mandating masks reduces the rate at which COVID-19 spreads through communities.
ND reports record active cases
Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health reported 255 new cases of COVID-19 on another record-breaking day.
The department also confirmed the deaths of a Burleigh County woman in her 90s and an Eddy County woman in her 80s. Like the vast majority of North Dakotans who have succumbed to the illness, both women had underlying health conditions, according to the department.
The department says 170 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 27 residents whose deaths were reported in the last two weeks. Eighty-nine of the deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. There still are three deaths that remain in a "presumed positive" category, which means a medical professional determined that COVID-19 was a cause of death but the person was not tested for the illness while he or she was alive.
There are now 2,758 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus — a new pandemic high. Sixty-five residents are hospitalized with the virus, include 19 patients are in intensive care.
Eighty of the new cases reported Monday came from Cass County. North Dakota State University reports 167 students, faculty and staff have tested positive in the last two weeks.
Forty-two of the new cases came from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county has the most active cases in the state with 513. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 13 new cases and has 216 active cases.
Stark County reported 34 new cases of the illness, bringing its active case count to 249.
Grand Forks County reported 32 new cases Monday, bringing the county to 273 active cases. The University of North Dakota reports 61 students, faculty and staff are infected with the virus and another 232 people linked to the university are in quarantine.
Twenty-four counties reported at least one case Monday, including many small, rural counties. All but four of the 53 counties in the state have at least one active case.
About 6.4% of the 3,959 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 6.8% of those tested for the first time got a positive result.
North Dakota does not report a seven-day rolling average for positivity rate as many other states do, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 9.3% for tests taken on previously untested residents.
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