Active cases of COVID-19 in North Dakota on Wednesday surpassed 300 for the first time in more than six weeks, continuing a steady recent rise.
Meanwhile, several North Dakota counties including Burleigh -- home to Bismarck and state government -- fell under new federal guidance regarding masking. However, that will not result in any changes for state employees "at this time," Gov. Doug Burgum said.
The statewide active case level of 353 was a jump of 61 from Tuesday and nearly double the level two weeks ago. It's still well below the pandemic high of 11,656 active cases reported Nov. 11, but health officials worry the new fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus could lead to another pandemic spike.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are trending upward across the country, a rise health experts attribute to delta and to vaccine holdouts. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas where virus transmission is "substantial" or "high."
Nine North Dakota counties including Burleigh fall into those categories, according to the CDC's COVID-19 data tracker website. The others are Divide, Dunn, Logan, McLean, Mountrail, Oliver, Sheridan and Ward.
Logan, Mountrail and McLean are in the "high" transmission category; the other counties are under "substantial." Morton County is in the "moderate" category, as are other North Dakota counties with large cities: Cass, Grand Forks, Stark, Ward and Williams. More than half of the state's 53 counties remain in the "low" category.
Active COVID-19 cases in Burleigh-Morton on Wednesday totaled 94, the highest level since 100 reported June 10. Active cases in the two counties were as low as 29 just two weeks ago.
Burgum on Wednesday issued a statement saying the state will not recommend masks for state employees based on the new CDC guidance.
“North Dakota’s statewide COVID-19 emergency ended April 30. Local entities are best suited to consider CDC guidelines based on local conditions, including case rates, positivity rates and available hospital capacity," he said.
The governor added that "North Dakota has relied on personal responsibility throughout the pandemic. Residents are encouraged to educate themselves on the differences of the delta variant, be aware of the level of spread in their area and utilize well-known COVID-19 etiquette and mitigation measures as appropriate."
Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health encourages members of the public to follow CDC recommendations, including masking in public indoor settings since the county is in an area of substantial virus spread, Director Renae Moch said in a statement to the Tribune.
"Layered prevention strategies continue to be important to stop the spread of the Delta variant which is twice as contagious and has 1,000 times the viral load of the original COVID-19 variant," she said. "It is more urgent than ever to get vaccinated if you have not done so already. Virtually all hospitalizations and deaths continue to be among those that are not vaccinated."
More daily data
The Health Department on its coronavirus dashboard Wednesday confirmed 81 new cases of COVID-19 from 2,465 tests processed Sunday. It was the highest daily total in two months.
State officials calculated a positivity rate of 3.37%, and a 14-day rolling average test positivity rate of 2.49%. That's within the target range of less than 5%, but the 14-day average has been climbing steadily since a recent low of 1.05% on July 5.
The newly confirmed virus cases brought North Dakota's pandemic total to 111,411, with 109,520 recoveries, 1,538 deaths and 4,391 hospitalizations. No new deaths were reported Wednesday. Eighteen COVID-19 patients remained in a hospital; that figure has been relatively stable this week.
Health officials are urging people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 to get a shot.
"Getting vaccinated is the way out of this pandemic," Moch said.
More than 643,500 total doses of the three available COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in North Dakota, with about 94,700 doses in Burleigh-Morton counties, according to the state's vaccine dashboard. It shows 49.3% of eligible North Dakota adults are considered fully vaccinated; 18.7% of adolescents in the 12-18 age group are considered fully vaccinated.
A list of free COVID-19 testing offered by local public health units is at health.nd.gov/covidtesting. People can go to health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available near them. For more detailed information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.