Gov. Doug Burgum is further easing coronavirus protocols in North Dakota, announcing Wednesday that the statewide risk level will move to "low" effective 8 a.m. Friday.
All North Dakota counties are in the yellow "moderate" risk level on the state's five-level color-coded system. Low-risk, or green, is the second-lowest level, higher only than blue "new normal."
The risk level determines coronavirus-related protocols in place under the ND Smart Restart Plan for everything from businesses to family gatherings. Those protocols are not enforced. For more information, go to https://bit.ly/38npUYV.
A low risk level will increase the recommended occupancy limit for bars, restaurants and other food service establishments from 65% of licensed facility capacity up to 200 patrons, to 80% of capacity up to 300 patrons, with social distancing and face coverings strongly recommended or required. Banquet, ballrooms and event venues are recommended at 75% of room capacity, up from 50% under yellow.
Burgum moved all counties to orange/high risk in early November amid a spike in coronavirus cases and concerns about available staffed hospital beds across the state. That month he also implemented a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions.
Active COVID-19 cases, coronavirus-related hospitalizations and test postivity rates then began a steady decline. Burgum on Dec. 22 lifted an order that restricted bars and restaurants to takeout, curbside and delivery between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Earlier this month he lifted the mask mandate and relaxed enforced business capacity restrictions.
Causes and concerns
Some people credit the restrictions and mask mandate measures for the drop in COVID-19 numbers; others view them as infringements on personal freedom. There could be other factors for the improvements in the pandemic data, as well, including a drop-off in testing and the availability of vaccines.
Herd immunity might even be a reason. A Columbia University researcher who helped study why vaccines alone won't end the pandemic estimates that 60% of North Dakota's population has been infected with COVID-19 -- a much higher percentage than state data indicates because of the number of infected people who don't have symptoms or who do have them but don't bother to get tested. Epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman believes vaccines will help in the state but the pandemic will mostly burn out on its own, according to The New York Times, which publicized the study.
But there are unknowns, including how many people get reinfected and whether more contagious variants of the disease show up in the state.
Health experts have warned that the more contagious and possibly more lethal variant sweeping Britain will probably become the dominant source of infection in the U.S. by March. It has been reported in more than 20 states, according to The Associated Press. Other mutant versions are circulating in South Africa and Brazil, and the Brazil variant has been detected in Minnesota.
North Dakota's Health Department has been testing for the variants since they surfaced in the U.S. and plans to publicly announce if and when one is detected, according to spokeswoman Nicole Peske.
Vaccine availability also is a concern.
North Dakota's rate of total doses administered per capita remains among the highest rates in the country, behind only Alaska, West Virginia and New Mexico, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking site. But the state is receiving fewer than 10,000 doses of vaccine a week, according to AP.
“It's going slowly,” Dr. Doug Griffin, vice president and chief medical officer at Sanford Health in Fargo, told the wire service.
Burgum on Wednesday noted that active cases were at 1,016, down dramatically from the peak of 11,656 reported Nov. 11. In Burleigh-Morton counties, active cases numbered just 166.
The state's 14-day rolling positivity rate has dropped to 3.17%, the lowest since Aug. 22, according to the governor. The daily rate on Wednesday was just 2.6%, from 7,354 tests handled Tuesday.
Hospitalizations on Wednesday were at 49, compared with the reported peak of 332 on Nov. 16.
“We’re grateful to all North Dakotans, including our medical, education and business communities, for their actions that have contributed to these positive results,” Burgum said in a statement. “We continue to use a data-driven approach to navigate this pandemic, and all data indicates North Dakota is heading in the right direction."
He encouraged state residents to continue observing protocols including mask wearing and physical distancing, and to get vaccinated when eligible.
Other daily data reported by the Health Department included 162 new COVID-19 cases, raising the state's pandemic total to 97,160, with 94,728 recoveries, 3,757 hospitalizations and 1,416 deaths. One new death was reported, in Ward County.
The state's COVID-19 Smart Restart County Analysis data dashboard can be accessed at www.health.nd.gov/healthmetrics. A list of free testing offered by local public health units is at health.nd.gov/covidtesting. A list of vaccine priority groups can be found at https://www.health.nd.gov/covid-19-vaccine-priority-groups. 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.