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North Dakota takes steps to add staff for hospitals 'under enormous pressure'

North Dakota takes steps to add staff for hospitals 'under enormous pressure'

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Citing a significant uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations in recent weeks, Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday announced steps to add more workers to a health care system he described as “under enormous pressure” with capacity that could become “severely constrained” in as little as two weeks.

Hospital workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic will be allowed to return, while infected, to work in facilities’ coronavirus units under an amended State Health Officer order.

Burgum also announced plans to hire emergency medical services personnel to facilitate testing, as well as efforts to expand rapid testing. He has also moved all counties in the state to the orange or “high risk” level.

At his weekly virus press conference, the governor said hospitals requested that asymptomatic workers be allowed to return to staff their coronavirus units. Some hospital systems have done this at their facilities in other states, he said.

Statewide, hospitals have seen a 60% uptick in coronavirus patients in the past four weeks, and their staffs are stretched thin as workers stay home because they have tested positive or must quarantine. On Monday, the state reported 14 more coronavirus hospitalizations, a substantial increase for a single day. Throughout North Dakota, 254 people are hospitalized due to COVID-19.

Burgum said he believed allowing asymptomatic staff to work with patients hospitalized due to the virus would help alleviate capacity issues and not contribute to further spread among health care workers.

“We’re confident it can (work) under the narrow restrictions that we have,” he said, adding that workers would be dressed in full personal protective equipment.

Asymptomatic workers would be “completely isolated” from their coworkers and would enter hospitals through separate doors, said Chris Jones, executive director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

The order was based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mitigate staffing shortages.

Hospital leaders will now have daily meetings with counterparts in their communities to address capacity issues. They might move workers from one location to another, even from one hospital to a competitor, Burgum said.

The North Dakota Department of Health will begin to hire EMS personnel at rates of $30 to $42 per hour, depending on a candidate’s licensure level, to test for COVID-19. Their wages will be paid for by federal coronavirus stimulus dollars.

Burgum said the effort will help “free up some of the nurses we have working for the Department of Health to be deployed to support in-patient care as needed” at hospitals.

People interested in applying can visit www.health.nd.gov/careers.

North Dakota will also begin more widespread use of the 150,000 BinaxNOW tests it has on hand. The tests return results in 15 minutes and were purchased by the federal government.

Some will go to universities to test staff and student-athletes. A portion will go to local public health units to test first responders, health care workers, staff and others. One of the state’s main objectives is to use the tests on health care workers so they do not have to wait for days to hear results from a lab, allowing some to return to work faster depending on the results, Burgum said.

The tests will also go to long-term care facilities to allow for more frequent testing, and the state plans to coordinate efforts with tribes. Starting Nov. 20, the tests will be available on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where officials hope to test 2,000 people on a recurring basis, Burgum said.

Federal officials are tracking whether states administer the tests.

“If these are kept in inventory and not used, then the federal government will ship us less,” Burgum said. “If we use them in these strategic ways, then we can get more.”

Latest numbers

The state reached another record in active COVID-19 cases at 10,865, according to daily figures released by the health department.

North Dakota has set new active case highs for six days straight. In that time period, the count has climbed by nearly 2,300.

Active cases in Burleigh and Morton counties rose Monday to a high of 2,119, the result of 214 and 61 new cases reported in each county, respectively. North Dakota had 1,160 new cases for a positivity rate of 16.73%, as calculated by the state.

Other counties with a significant number of new cases included Cass, home to Fargo, at 216; Grand Forks at 166; and Ward, home to Minot, at 93.

The cases reported Monday come from 7,455 tests processed in labs Sunday.

Since the start of the pandemic, 55,458 North Dakotans have tested positive for COVID-19.

In Bismarck, CHI St. Alexius Health had no bed availability as of Monday morning, according to a state database. Sanford Health had one staffed intensive care unit bed open and four available non-ICU beds. Statewide, there were 11 ICU beds open and 183 non-ICU beds.

Five more North Dakotans have died with COVID-19, bringing the state's death toll to 644. The deaths reported Monday included people in their 50s, 60s and 80s from Burleigh, McKenzie, Mountrail, Stutsman and Walsh counties.

Risk levels

Burgum said moving all counties to the orange level indicates “the seriousness of the situation where the whole state is at high risk.”

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. At the orange level, the state recommends limiting the capacity of gatherings and businesses to 25%, with a maximum of 50 people.

The guidelines are not enforced. The state reviews the county levels weekly.

The state's COVID-19 Smart Restart County Analysis data dashboard can be accessed at www.health.nd.gov/healthmetrics. Information on COVID-19 in K-12 schools is at https://www.health.nd.gov/k-12-school-dashboard. For more detailed information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to health.nd.gov/coronavirus.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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