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New and active COVID-19 cases reach new highs in North Dakota; school decision addressed

New and active COVID-19 cases reach new highs in North Dakota; school decision addressed

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North Dakota health officials on Friday reported nearly 900 new cases of COVID-19, helping push active cases statewide past the 5,000 mark.

The Department of Health also reported 18 more coronavirus-related deaths, including four in Burleigh County and one in Morton. They raised the state's pandemic death toll to 388, with about one-third of that total in Burleigh-Morton. Nearly 50 of the statewide deaths have been reported since last weekend.

Separately, the state released a draft vaccination plan, and Bismarck's school superintendent on Friday publicly addressed the district's decision to delay moving more students back to full-time classroom learning.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported a big jump in cases in the state's prison system.

More records

Other new deaths reported by the state Friday were in the counties of Bottineau, Cass, Grand Forks, McHenry, McLean, Stark, Towner, Ward and Williams. Victims ranged in age from their 60s to their 90s, and all had underlying medical conditions, according to the state.

Officials reported a new daily high of 877 COVID-19 cases, including 108 in Burleigh and 29 in Morton. Active cases statewide jumped by 300, to 5,247, also a record. Active cases in Burleigh-Morton numbered 1,205. Cass County, home to Fargo, had 1,045.

Hospitalizations rose by 10, to a record 148. There were 260 available staffed inpatient beds plus 22 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota on Friday, according to state data. There were 22 available staffed beds plus one ICU bed in Bismarck: 20 beds but no ICU at CHI St. Alexius Health, and two beds plus one ICU at Sanford Health.

Records reflect what is reported daily by the state. Data on the health department's COVID-19 dashboard often differs because it's updated as new information comes in.

Statewide, there have been 30,517 cases since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March, 24,882 recoveries and 1,221 hospitalizations. The number of state residents tested for coronavirus at least once is at 266,863 and total tests number 747,239, including 9,226 handled Thursday.

The COVID Tracking project reported that the state has had 978 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, which leads the nation, according to The Associated Press. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 54% in the last two weeks.

Burleigh, Morton and 14 other North Dakota counties are in the orange "high risk" level on the state's five-level color-coded system; 15 are in the yellow "moderate risk" level; 17 are in the green "low risk" level; and five are in the blue "new normal" 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. The guidelines are not enforced.

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.

School update

Bismarck Superintendent Jason Hornbacher in a letter to parents and staff on Friday explained the rationale behind delaying a planned move back to full-time in-person learning for more students.

Gov. Doug Burgum on Wednesday elevated 16 counties including Burleigh and Morton to "high risk" and announced updated state guidelines that include reduced capacities for businesses, though no closures.

His office said schools' instructional models are not impacted by changes to county risk levels. However, the public school systems in both Bismarck and Mandan issued statements shortly after his announcement saying the districts were delaying plans to move grades 6-9 to full-time face-to-face learning on Oct. 19. Students in those grades will continue with a hybrid model that entails alternating in-person and distance learning.

Hornbacher said in his Friday letter that the BPS model is not tied to the county's color code but added "it is unrealistic to believe education can function as an island upon itself and not be affected by our surroundings."

The most recent BPS dashboard, current through Sunday, showed active COVID-19 cases in 22 staff and 30 students. Hornbacher said "positive cases can be linked to activities within the community." The district quarantined four classrooms on Tuesday and Wednesday, and "this was not because the kids or teachers contracted COVID from a school," he said. Hornbacher also said finding substitutes "is highly problematic."

Several Bismarck teachers and a representative of the Bismarck Education Association on Monday had asked the school board for a delay in returning grades 6-9 to full-time classroom learning, citing safety concerns due to rising case numbers and low hospital capacity. The board took no action on the request.

Corrections spike

The state corrections department on Friday reported 80 active cases -- 37 staff and 43 residents. That was up from 54 cases a week ago. Most of the increase was in staff. No staff or inmates were hospitalized due to COVID-19.

Most of the active cases are at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck, where 19 staff and 39 inmates are positive. All inmates with the virus are put in a medical isolation unit and monitored at least twice daily, according to the department. Staff who test positive or are determined to be a close contact of a positive case are required to immediately leave the workplace.

Corrections has a number of measures in place aimed at mitigating virus spread, including the suspension of in-person visitation.

For more information on coronavirus in the state prison system, go to https://www.docr.nd.gov/covid-19-information.

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

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