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Burleigh-Morton sees big September increase in COVID-19 data; local task force seeks more data

Burleigh-Morton sees big September increase in COVID-19 data; local task force seeks more data

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Burleigh and Morton counties closed out September with 125 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, five more coronavirus-related deaths, and dwindling available beds in Bismarck hospitals.

The new daily data from the state Department of Health on the final day of the month Wednesday brings total cases reported during September in the two counties to 2,472 -- nearly half of their pandemic total of 5,122. Active cases in Burleigh-Morton on Wednesday totaled 959 -- an 85% increase from the beginning of the month. Burleigh continued to lead the state in active cases, with 703.

The region has seen a steady rise in COVID-19 numbers since the beginning of August, coinciding with the reopening of the economy, more gatherings of people and a large increase in testing. A task force of state and local officials has been working since Aug. 7 to try to address the spike.

Task force requests

Some members of the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force's steering committee asked the state for access to more data at a Wednesday meeting to discuss responses to the pandemic around North Dakota. The meeting included Gov. Doug Burgum, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, state Chief Operating Officer Tammy Miller, and city, county and public health officials from across the state.

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch said the steering committee members updated the governor on the task force's progress. They discussed an increase in local testing volume, the launch of the "COVID Stops Here" education campaign by Agency MABU, plans for a shelter for homeless COVID-19 patients and the distribution of resources to local businesses.

Moch and Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken told the Tribune after the meeting that they want more data on patient numbers and health care staffing levels at local hospitals, along with the help of epidemiologists to interpret the data.

"If we're going to be trying to do all of the work locally, we need some of that data to make decisions without having to wait for it," Moch said.

Bakken added that "until we have that information, we're guessing."

Sanford Health and CHI St. Alexius employees have brought concerns about diminishing hospital capacity to the task force. The state health department's public COVID-19 dashboard lists numbers of licensed beds available statewide, but not all of those beds are staffed.

The Tribune on Wednesday asked the heath department for data on available staffed beds in Bismarck. As of Tuesday, there were 12 available beds including two intensive care unit beds at CHI St. Alexius, and three available beds but no ICU beds at Sanford, according to the data the Tribune received. Sanford announced on Tuesday that it was opening a new unit with 14 total beds, including six designated for intensive care patients. 

Bakken noted that the state's goal has been to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
"If our hospital system is overcapacity and inundated, then we're not in the best position to work toward any of those other goals," he told the Tribune.

Moch and Bakken also said they prefer any pandemic-related mandates, such as for masks, come from the state rather than from local officials. Bakken cited frequent travel by residents as something that makes local mandates less effective.

"Doing individual jurisdictions made no sense," he said. "Mandates and things like that need to come from leadership at the top of the state or they're not going to work." 

Daily data

State health officials on Wednesday reported 84 new COVID-19 cases in Burleigh, 41 in Morton and 447 statewide, raising the pandemic total to 21,846. Active cases statewide rose slightly, to 3,661.

Coronavirus in North Dakota Active

The department reported the coronavirus-related deaths of Burleigh men in their 80s and 90s and a woman in her 70s, a Morton man in his 60s and woman in her 90s, an Emmons County man in his 80s, a Mercer County woman in her 90s and a McLean County woman in her 90s. All had underlying medical conditions, according to the state. The eight deaths brought the state total to 247.

Burleigh ended the month with 49 total pandemic deaths and Morton with 28. Nearly three-fourths of the combined total of 77 were reported in September. Deaths aren't necessarily reported the day they occur -- death certificate filings can take up to 10 days under state law.

There have been 17,938 recoveries statewide since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March, and 859 hospitalizations. Current coronavirus-related hospitalizations dropped to 89 from an all-time high of 105 early in the week.

The number of North Dakota residents tested for coronavirus at least once is at 241,484 and total tests number 636,374.

Burleigh and Morton counties are in the yellow "moderate" risk level, which is in the middle of the state's five-level color-coded system. The risk level determines what sort of coronavirus-related protocols are in place under the ND Smart Restart Plan for everything from businesses to family gatherings. The protocols are not enforced.

Fourteen other North Dakota counties are at yellow, 25 are in the green or "low" risk level and 12 are in the blue "new normal" level. The state reviews the county risk levels on a weekly basis.

For more detailed information on county risk levels and on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to health.nd.gov/coronavirus.

(Reporter Jack Dura contributed to this story.)

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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