Younger adults are driving the increase in COVID-19 cases in Burleigh and Morton counties, Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch said Wednesday during a public briefing on a task force being formed to address the area's development into a coronavirus hot spot.
The event was held the same day the state Department of Health reported a fourth coronavirus-related death in Burleigh County, and cases in Burleigh-Morton took another big jump.
Meanwhile, hospital leaders in Bismarck discussed positive coronavirus cases among their staffs, amid talk in the community about a possible outbreak at one of the two facilities.
In both counties, the age group with the highest number of COVID-19 cases is people in their 20s, with people in their 30s also seeing an increase, according to Moch.
People in their 20s are leading in positive tests by age and by unique positive tests.
“They are the individuals out in the community,” Moch said at the briefing. “They’re more active. Maybe they have front line jobs or are in service positions.”
Part of the reason for the recent surge in cases is that the area is now seeing the effects of large gatherings held during the July Fourth holiday, according to Moch.
She said the local health department will be keeping an eye on the age group because members will be going back to college and living with other students.
Gov. Doug Burgum on Tuesday announced the task force in response to a surge of COVID-19 cases in Burleigh and Morton counties in recent weeks. North Dakota Chief Operating Officer Tammy Miller at Wednesday's briefing said a steering committee made up of local leaders will run the group. Those leaders were not immediately announced, though Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken confirmed to the Tribune that he is on the committee. More information about the task force is to come later in the week.
The task force’s goal is to bring down Burleigh and Morton counties’ positivity rate to at or below the state’s average. Funding has not been outlined yet, though both Miller and Burgum have said it likely will be done with federal CARES Act coronavirus relief money given to the state.
Moch said one of the task force’s aims will to be increase testing capacity in the two counties.
The task force does not have the authority to mandate mask-wearing. That will be left up to local jurisdictions. Custer Health Administrator Erin Ourada said she hopes the task force increases messaging about the importance of wearing a mask.
Bakken said the city needs the extra support the task force can provide. He wants to keep local businesses open and get children back in school.
“Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health has been ahead of even what the state’s been doing in a lot of regards, but we’re stressed on resources,” the mayor said.
While a fourth coronavirus-related death in Burleigh County was reported Wednesday, a 77th was confirmed in Cass County.
The Cass County woman in her 80s had underlying medical conditions, but the Burleigh County man in his 80s did not, according to the state Department of Health. His death was only the third in the state in that category. The two new deaths raised the state total to 102.
Cass has long been North Dakota's COVID-19 hot spot, but that distinction has passed to Burleigh and neighboring Morton County this month.
Active cases in North Dakota have more than tripled this month, coinciding with the reopening of the economy and an increase in testing. Burleigh leads the state in active cases, at 285, and Morton is third, with 80. The two counties together have more than one-third of the state's 1,038 active cases. Cass County has 120 of them.
The Burleigh-Morton task force is being modeled after one created in early May in the Red River Valley after Cass County and Fargo bloomed into a hot spot. The outbreak there has lessened in recent weeks.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, a physician and member of the Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force, attributed the region’s drop from a high of nearly 10% in positive cases to increased testing and a “vigorous” contact-tracing program used to identify and isolate groups of those who may be infected.
Mahoney told The Associated Press that area residents also heeded stay-at-home requests and precaution recommendations such as wearing a mask.
“We had great compliance,” he said. “We saw numbers drop dramatically after that.”
Mahoney said education is key to compliance.
“People are fiercely independent but this disease spreads like crazy,” he told AP. “The challenge is to motivate your community to do the right thing."
State health officials on Wednesday reported a total of 89 new coronavirus cases in 21 counties, including 27 in Burleigh and nine in Morton, pushing the statewide total since the start of the pandemic to 6,227. There have been 351 hospitalizations and 5,087 recoveries. Thirty-nine people remained hospitalized Wednesday, up four from the previous day. The number of people in North Dakota tested for coronavirus at least once is at 151,083, and total tests number 300,971.
For more information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to health.nd.gov/coronavirus.
Leaders of Bismarck’s two hospitals were asked at the briefing to address concerns expressed in the community about how many health care workers might have tested positive, and whether there are any hospital outbreaks.
About 60 Sanford Bismarck employees and seven CHI St. Alexius Health employees are in quarantine due to COVID-19, according to Sanford President Michael LeBeau and CHI St. Alexius CEO Kurt Schley.
LeBeau said fewer than 3% of that health system’s approximately 3,000 employees in Bismarck are not at work due to COVID-19 infection. Some of the affected employees were in therapy-related units, and others worked on various hospital floors, he said.
He said characterizing Sanford cases as an “outbreak” is not appropriate -- that the hospital has been “very aggressive” with testing front line health care workers.
“Front line testing to make sure we’re catching folks when they have it, I think, is an important strategy,” LeBeau said.
The seven CHI St. Alexius employees caught COVID-19 through community spread, and they worked in nonpatient facing positions, Schley said. The hospital hasn’t recorded any cases of employee-to-employee or employee-to-patient transmission.
Sanford Health and CHI St. Alexius are the two largest private employers in the Bismarck-Mandan area, according to the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC.
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