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COVID-19 cases set new state and local records; mask mandate still matter of debate

COVID-19 cases set new state and local records; mask mandate still matter of debate

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The North Dakota Department of Health on Thursday reported 201 new cases of COVID-19 in Burleigh and Morton counties, a new single-day high in the counties that are now considered "high risk" by the state.

Active cases statewide hit a record for an eighth straight day, at 4,947. About one-fourth of them -- nearly 1,200 -- are in Burleigh-Morton.

Health officials have reported 769 new cases in the two counties this week. The state on Thursday also reported a 45th coronavirus-related death in Morton County -- a woman in her 70s with underlying medical conditions -- raising the two counties' pandemic death total to 109.

The state reported four other deaths, of people in Bottineau, Cavalier, Mercer and Ward counties who also had underlying health problems. The statewide pandemic death total stands at 370.

Hospitalizations rose by six, to 138. There were 237 available staffed inpatient beds plus 19 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota on Thursday afternoon, according to state data. There were five available staffed beds plus one ICU bed in Bismarck: two beds plus one ICU at Sanford Health, and three beds but no ICU at CHI St. Alexius Health.

Statewide, there have been 24,336 recoveries and 1,192 hospitalizations. The number of state residents tested for coronavirus at least once is at 264,761 and total tests number 738,020, including 7,121 handled Wednesday.

Those tests resulted in 705 new cases statewide, including 134 in Burleigh and 67 in Morton. New cases were reported in all but five of the state's 53 counties.

Coronavirus in North Dakota Active

Gov. Doug Burgum on Wednesday elevated 16 counties including Burleigh and Morton to "high risk" -- the second-most serious of five risk levels that determine the coronavirus-related protocols in place under the ND Smart Restart Plan for everything from businesses to family gatherings.

Burgum also updated the state guidelines, and measures such as business closures will not occur. However, the new guidance includes reductions in the number of people they can have on their premises.

The protocols are not enforced, however. Burgum also is not mandating masks, though he recommends that businesses require them.

Mask mandate debate

The governor has faced increasing pressure to implement a statewide mask mandate.

Burgum said during a public coronavirus briefing on Wednesday that he had met with 14 mayors from around the state and that some "clearly would be in support of a statewide mask mandate," though he would not identify them.

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken has said previously that if masks are to be required, the mandate should come from the state, not from local governments. He and the mayors of Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and West Fargo wrote a public letter this week urging people take steps including mask wearing to prevent “another significant wave of this virus” that could prompt business restrictions.

Dozens of pediatricians this week also wrote a public letter, asking Burgum to implement a mask mandate "even if it is politically inexpedient."

"The refusal to endorse a mask mandate is no longer an act of strong leadership; the refusal ignores sound science and the recommendations of medical experts at local, state, and national levels," the letter said.

More than 150 doctors from around the state recently signed onto a letter to the public that encourages mask wearing among other measures, though it does not call on Burgum to issue a mandate.

Among those who signed was Joan Connell, the state health department's field medical officer and chairwoman of the state's Physician Advisory Group, a panel that originated with the health department under former State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte, who quit in May. The group now operates under the auspices of the North Dakota Medical Association.

The advisory group "agreed a mask mandate might help our communities embrace this simple and every effective mitigation strategy," Connell told the Tribune. She added that "as far as I am aware, none of the physicians involved with this group spoke to the governor about this mandate."

Governor spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Burgum "had no direct authority over, or direct guidance from, that group.”

Connell last month did publicly advocate for a mask mandate before the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force. 

The task force recommended that local governments mandate masks. The commissions for Bismarck and Morton County did not enact mandates. The commissions for Mandan and Burleigh County, which met a week after the previous two, did not discuss mandates because of the other commissions' decisions. Many people in the area believe that mask mandates infringe on personal freedom.

Burgum maintains that a mask mandate would not be effective because he believes people won't wear masks unless they believe in wearing them. He encourages personal responsibility.

“This is a path that requires us to understand our own role and the impact of our own individual choices," he said during his Wednesday briefing. 

The state's COVID-19 Smart Restart County Analysis data dashboard can be accessed at www.health.nd.gov/healthmetrics. For more detailed information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to health.nd.gov/coronavirus.

(Reporter Sam Nelson contributed to this story.)

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

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