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North Dakota's COVID-19 total rises to 36 with 4 new cases, including 1 in far west

North Dakota's COVID-19 total rises to 36 with 4 new cases, including 1 in far west

From the North Dakota coronavirus news roundup of the week: March 22-28 series

North Dakota is taking steps to help student loan borrowers and the transportation industry and to safeguard vulnerable people in long-term care facilities as the new coronavirus takes further hold on the state.

The Department of Health confirmed four more cases on Tuesday, including the first in far western North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum reported in an afternoon public briefing. That brings the total number of confirmed coronavirus illnesses in the state to 36.

Burgum also reported three more hospitalizations, bringing the state total to seven. State officials have not released details on those cases. There have been no COVID-19 deaths in North Dakota.

The new cases are in a Dunn County man in his 20s, a Burleigh County woman in her 60s, a Cass County man in his 70s and a Cass County man in his 90s. The Dunn County man and Burleigh County woman had traveled. The source of infection for the Cass County cases was still being investigated.

The Dunn County case is the first confirmed in far western North Dakota. The Burleigh County case is the county's 18th, and it's the sixth consecutive day of a positive case being confirmed in the county. Aside from neighboring Morton County, which has seven positives, no other county has more than three cases. Officials have not speculated on why Burleigh-Morton's total is so high, though the two-county region does have a high number of people tested.

State and private labs have now conducted 1,602 total tests, with 1,566 being negative. Forty-nine of the state's 53 counties have had at least one resident tested.

A state map of test results by county of residence showed Burleigh County with the second-most number of people tested, at 245, as of noon Tuesday. Morton County had another 85. The leading county was Ward, with 247. Ward County has three positive cases. By comparison, Cass County had 131 test results. Cass is the state's most populous county, with nearly double the number of people as Burleigh, but it has only one positive case.

Gov. Doug Burgum has stressed in recent days that North Dakotans should not get complacent due to the relatively low numbers of new cases being identified. He indicated on Sunday that the state could soon begin seeing more cases from eastern North Dakota as results come in from a batch of 300 tests collected in Cass County that were sent to a backlogged national lab. That batch could include people from Minnesota. Thirty of those test results have now come in, according to Burgum. 

Student loan breaks

Burgum and the Bank of North Dakota on Tuesday announced that student loan borrowers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak can request to defer payments for six months.

The interest rate for variable rate borrowers decreases April 1, so the state-owned bank will reduce payments to reflect the new interest rate. In addition, all borrowers with a fixed interest rate will receive a decrease in their interest rate by at least 1% when the bank is able to work through technical issues -- possibly around June 1, according to Burgum.

“We understand this is an extremely challenging time for our borrowers and want to assist them,” Bank President and CEO Eric Hardmeyer said in a statement.

The bank's student loan portfolio is $1.18 billion, with 46,760 borrowers. Burgum said the breaks being offered "total almost a $5 million decision made today to try to support students."

The federal student loan program is automatically providing for deferred payments for all borrowers, according to Hardmeyer.

“Instead of assuming our borrowers want this change, we are requesting they contact us," he said. "We realize some may want to take advantage of the reduced interest rates and continue repaying their student loans on schedule.”

To request the deferment of payments, borrowers can complete a form online at bnd.nd.gov/covid or call 800-472-2166, extension 328-5660.

Load limits

The state Department of Transportation is making two moves "to facilitate the regular and uninterrupted movement of goods and traveling within North Dakota," Burgum said.

Administrative hearings on such matters as suspensions or revocations of driver's licenses that typically are done in-person before a hearing officer can now be held via telephone or video conferencing.

The department also is lifting season load limits on highways across the state. The limits are aimed at protecting roads left vulnerable by the spring thaw. They're typically lifted only when roadbeds have stabilized enough to carry normal loads.

The state transportation director retains the authority to impose load limits on roads that are sustaining heavy damage, according to Burgum.

"Could this rapidly deteriorate some of our state roads ... it's something that we have to watch out for," he said.

Long-term care

State Department of Health workers have finished conducting site visits at each of the 218 skilled nursing, basic care and assisted living facilities in North Dakota, according to Burgum.

The goal of the effort was to ensure long-term care facilities are following the state directive to limit access to the public, and to help them prepare for the outbreak.

"This is about protecting those that are most vulnerable -- our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, including many military veterans," Burgum said.

There have been no COVID-19 cases in North Dakota nursing homes "and we hope to keep it that way," Burgum said. "We know it's hard for families not being able to visit your loved ones, but reach out to them in other ways and let's keep them safe."

Child care guidance

Burgum during a public briefing on Monday also announced the state is taking steps to shore up the child care industry amid the coronavirus pandemic, and boost safety for both providers and children. The effort has three objectives, the governor said: provide child care for essential worker households, protect the health of children and child care workers, and sustain child care as an industry.

A “rapid planning process” is to culminate with new state guidelines announced no later than Thursday and implemented next Monday to "modify operating practices, prioritize essential workers and create financial support mechanisms," according to a statement from the governor's office.

Questions about the process and guidelines can be directed to Jessica Thomasson, Department of Human Services director of community inclusion, at jthomasson@nd.gov

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

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