North Dakota's declared state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic ended Friday, though state health officials urged residents to remain cautious in part because of the emergence of more-contagious virus variants.
“While the emergency declaration is ending ... the virus is still present in our communities,” Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke said in a statement. “We encourage North Dakotans to keep using preventative measures including physical distancing, wearing a mask when you can’t distance, getting tested and most importantly getting vaccinated."
The state Health Department on Friday reported 175 new COVID-19 cases and one new death, along with 35 virus-related hospitalizations. Cases have increased in recent weeks, with health officials citing pandemic fatigue, spring weather and public gatherings. But the numbers pale in comparison to pandemic highs late last year.
"COVID-19 cases continue to be reported from our communities in North Dakota, and people continue to be hospitalized for COVID-19,” said Kirby Kruger, head of the department's disease control division and forensic pathology section.
The state lab has now identified 219 cases of five variants, nearly triple from three weeks ago, Kruger told the Tribune. There are 153 cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom, 64 of the two California variants, and one each of the South Africa variant and the Japan/Brazil variant.
Those types of variants all are on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's list of "variants of concern" -- a threat level in the middle of "variants of interest" and "variants of high consequence." There are four in the low category and none in the high. For more information, go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html.
The North Dakota variant cases began surfacing in mid-February. They have resulted in 10 hospitalizations and no deaths, according to Kruger.
Available vaccines appear to be effective to some degree against the variants, particularly in protecting against serious disease and hospitalization.
About 41% of North Dakotans are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but concerns remain. North Dakota has some of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly one-third of the population of western North Dakota has reservations about getting a shot. And state data show that vaccinations in North Dakota have begun to plateau.
The new COVID-19 cases reported Friday brought the state's pandemic total to 107,473, with 104,877 recoveries, 1,492 deaths and 4,121 hospitalizations. The hospitalization rate among North Dakotans ages 16-49 rose 59% from March to April, the highest month-to-month increase in that age group so far, according to Kruger.
State officials calculated a positivity rate of 4.18% from 5,978 tests completed Thursday. Active cases were relatively stable statewide at 1,104, with 216 in Burleigh-Morton counties.
“Although this virus is changing and continues to circulate, we still have good prevention measures that can be utilized to help reduce the spread of this virus,” Kruger said in a statement.
Gov. Doug Burgum last week announced he would lift the state's coronavirus emergency declaration at the end of the month, noting that the state has no enforced pandemic-related business or event restrictions in place and that officials have shifted their focus to vaccinations. The declaration had been in place a little more than a year.
The declaration activated the State Emergency Operations Plan and gave Burgum additional powers, such as the authority to activate the National Guard and waive certain regulations. He issued dozens of pandemic-related executive orders, all of which were either rescinded earlier or lifted Friday. The governor's office worked with the Legislature to transition many parts of pandemic executive orders into law, such as ensuring a funding mechanism for online school curriculum.
Among the executive orders ending Friday was one requiring people who test positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate, and one that waived a required waiting week for new unemployment claims.
The state also will no longer maintain a coronavirus risk level. The risk level determined pandemic-related protocols in place under the ND Smart Restart Plan for everything from businesses to family gatherings. They were not enforced.
A list of free COVID-19 testing offered by local public health units is at health.nd.gov/covidtesting. People can go to health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available near them. For more detailed information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or email@example.com.