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Local governments to consider mask mandate; active COVID-19 cases in North Dakota reach new high

Local governments to consider mask mandate; active COVID-19 cases in North Dakota reach new high

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Local governments will discuss mandating mask wearing in public and turning other coronavirus guidelines into requirements at their next meetings following a recommendation from the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force on Friday.

The guidance came as state health officials reported a record number of active COVID-19 cases statewide, and another big jump in Burleigh and Morton counties.

Discussions will take place at upcoming meetings of the Burleigh and Morton county commissions and the Bismarck City Commission. It wasn't immediately clear if the Mandan City Commission also will be discussing the matter.

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch said it's a positive move for the region.

"Bringing that to the commission table, whatever way it may go ... the importance of that being talked about is a step in the right direction," she said.

North Dakota does not want to turn guidelines into requirements statewide, state Chief Operating Officer Tammy Miller said at Friday's task force meeting, though she added that local governments can implement mask mandates or other requirements on their own.

Gov. Doug Burgum on Thursday elevated the coronavirus risk level in eight North Dakota counties, including Burleigh and Morton, from green, or low risk, to yellow, which is moderate risk. It marked a departure by his administration from the practice of keeping a whole-state approach to dealing with the pandemic. 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 to schools.

Some task force members wondered how effective any recommendations or guidelines are if they are not actually mandated and suggested mask mandates would help prevent the spread of COVID-19 following the recent spike in cases. Health care professionals on the task force said they worry hospitals will not have the capacity to treat COVID-19 patients if the increase in cases continues.

"We're seeing a big increase in numbers into the hospital and the stress of the health care workers taking care of those people," Bismarck physician Dr. David Field said.

It's not clear how many people are hospitalized in Bismarck. North Dakota's Department of Health releases hospitalization data for the state as a whole but not for individual cities, citing privacy.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Medical Director Dr. John Hagan said there has been a mask mandate in prisons since March and there has been virtually no COVID-19 transmission in the inmate population since.

Local leaders expressed concerns that the community would not react well to any mandates, and that mandates would work only if they could be enforced.

"I do have some reservations and fears about a mandate in terms of how the public responds," Morton County Commissioner Cody Schulz said. "The biggest currency we have as leaders is trust, so we have to make sure that we are communicating facts and strategies in a way that the public trusts."

The task force also received an update on a visit from a federal coronavirus team.

The U.S. Public Health Service COVID response team visited Bismarck this week as part of its tour of national COVID-19 hot spots. The response team praised accessability to testing, strong community partnerships and a forthcoming public information campaign that the task force has hired Agency MABU to conduct, Moch said. The response team also noted the lack of compliance with mask wearing in public, an increase of communitywide virus transmission and the upward trend in cases as areas of concern.

New cases

Active cases of COVID-19 in North Dakota reached a new high on Friday, but hospitalizations remained stable and no coronavirus-related deaths were reported for the first time in a week.

The state Department of Health reported 343 new COVID-19 cases in 29 counties, including 38 in Burleigh and 28 in Morton, raising the state total to 12,973. Active cases numbered 2,513, including 411 in Burleigh and 153 in Morton. Active cases increased by 85 statewide and by 14 in Burleigh-Morton.

There have been 10,310 recoveries statewide, with 590 hospitalizations. Sixty-seven people remained in the hospital Friday, no change from the previous day.

The number of people in North Dakota tested for coronavirus at least once is at 207,756, and total tests number 492,770, including 6,713 tests processed Thursday.

Eight North Dakota counties including Burleigh and Morton are in the yellow "moderate" risk level; 13 are in the blue "new normal" level, and 32 are in the green or "low" risk level. 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 to schools.

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

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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