Bismarck city commissioners next week will consider requiring masks in public, a move made this week by Fargo and Minot in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.
Commissioners, sitting as the City Board of Health on Wednesday night, voted 4-1 to have city staff draft a potential citywide mandate and also voted 4-1 to have staff draft a directive for masks in city buildings only. Commissioner Mark Splonskowski cast the dissenting vote in both cases, saying he "utterly and completely" rejects a mandate.
Commissioner Nancy Guy made the motion to have staff draft a citywide mandate and address business capacity guidelines.
"I think if we do nothing, we're courting economic disaster," she said.
The votes came after the board listened to concerns from the public health department, the business community and the local school district.
Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch told the board she feels it's important for some mitigation measure to be implemented. She also said contact tracing teams are overwhelmed, local hospitals are at capacity and that without intervention, Burleigh County could be moved to the red/critical risk level. It currently sits at orange/high risk. If moved to the critical risk level, businesses could be shut down and schools may not be allowed to hold face-to-face learning, Moch said. She said her best guess on when the county could be moved to red is when the 14-day rolling average positivity rate hits 15%. The current rate is 11.84%.
"Hospital workers are exhausted. Long-term care workers are exhausted. People are dying alone," Moch said.
Commissioner Steve Marquardt asked Moch why COVID-19 cases are still increasing even though more people are wearing masks. Moch said people are still having weddings or gathering in large numbers.
Separately, the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC on Wednesday came out in support of a local mask mandate.
Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC President Brian Ritter said during Wednesday's meeting that business owners' concerns include adequate hospital capacity and keeping kids in school so people aren't pulled out of the workforce to care for young children.
Small businesses also feel the playing field isn't level without a mandate, Ritter said. Some employees at one bar have threatened to quit if made to wear a mask, and restaurant owners have said they lose customers to other establishments that don't require masks. The chamber does not have data on how many businesses require masks.
Splonskowski took issue with requiring employees to wear masks, saying it limits their ability to choose what's right for them.
The board also heard Bismarck Public Schools' concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Moch read from district superintendent Jason Hornbacher's letter explaining why the district delayed returning grades 6-9 to in-person learning. Hornbacher wrote that it has been difficult to find substitute teachers and entire classrooms have been quarantined because of community exposure.
City Administrator Keith Hunke informed the group that some city workers have asked him to require masks in city buildings in the face of rising COVID-19 cases in the city and region.
Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken on Tuesday told the Tribune he was not considering a mask mandate. He said Wednesday he voted for the motion to move the discussion to the city commission. The Mandan City Commission at its Tuesday meeting discussed the issue but took no vote.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that North Dakota has the country’s worst per-capita spread rate, with 1,224 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The sharp increase in coronavirus cases has led to a contact tracing backlog of hundreds of cases. With the exception of health care facilities and schools, the health department is asking people who test positive to notify people with whom they've been in close contact and direct them to the agency's website for information on what to do.
That job previously has been handled by public health officials, but the state late Tuesday announced changes to the contact tracing process aimed at reducing the amount of time it takes to notify positive cases, which has increased recently from one day to three days.
The North Dakota National Guard has shifted 50 soldiers from contacting close contacts to notifying positive people. The state also is working to deliver automated notifications to positives, after which those people will receive a followup call from a case investigator. The system right now notifies only negative cases.
“Speeding up the notification process and conducting thorough case investigations of positive patients will help us to better identify potential clusters and allow patients to more quickly seek treatment and notify other individuals who may have been exposed to the virus,” Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke said in a statement.
The health department on Tuesday issued a social media plea for the public's help with contact tracing.
"Please be advised: NDDoH and local public health units are currently experiencing a backlog of COVID-19 case investigations, causing a delay in calls," the post on Facebook and Twitter said. "If you have tested positive for COVID-19, please isolate and inform any close contacts you've had that they should get tested!"
The spread of the virus and a lack of compliance with investigations has diminished the effectiveness of contact tracing, the health department said. Many other states suspended their efforts earlier, according to the agency.
"The intention is to go back to how we have been doing it, but much of that will be determined by where the numbers go and where the resource need is," health department spokeswoman Nicole Peske told the Tribune.
The health department on Wednesday reported 10 new coronavirus-related deaths including two in Burleigh County. State health officials also reported 516 new COVID-19 cases, including 42 in Burleigh County and 16 in Morton County, raising the statewide total to 34,165.
Active cases statewide dropped slightly, to 5,974. They also dropped slightly in Burleigh-Morton, to 1,269. It was the first time in 14 days that active cases statewide did not set a record.
Health officials reported the deaths of a Burleigh man and woman, both in their 70s, and eight other coronavirus-related deaths in Emmons, Kidder, McLean, Oliver, Stutsman and Ward counties. All had underlying medical conditions. Their deaths raised the state's pandemic total to 422. Burleigh County has 74 deaths, with another 48 in Morton.
Hospitalizations rose by seven, to 152. There were 224 available staffed inpatient beds plus 17 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota on Wednesday, according to state data. There were 10 available staffed beds plus one ICU bed in Bismarck: nine beds but no ICU at CHI St. Alexius Health, and one bed plus one ICU at Sanford Health.
Statewide, there have been 27,768 recoveries and 1,324 hospitalizations since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March. The number of state residents tested for coronavirus at least once is at 275,596 and total tests number 782,486.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or email@example.com.
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