North Dakota's statewide mask mandate will be allowed to expire as planned after the weekend, and coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses will be further eased, Gov. Doug Burgum announced Friday.
He cited a dramatic drop in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rate over the past two months. He also noted the availability of vaccines, rapid tests and new therapeutic treatments, and said "we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
The mask mandate -- which carried a potential fine and jail time for noncompliance -- has been in place since Nov. 14. It will expire at 8 a.m. on Monday. Local governments and school districts are still free to enact mandates, and "we still strongly support mask-wearing," Burgum said.
No local governments in the Bismarck-Mandan area have a mask mandate that is still in force. Bismarck Public Schools and Mandan Public Schools on Friday both said they will continue to require masks on school grounds after the statewide mandate ends.
Business capacity restrictions that went into effect on Nov. 16 have gradually been eased. Burgum in late December lifted an order that restricted bars and restaurants to takeout, curbside and delivery in the late-night and early morning hours. The governor earlier this month increased allowable capacity at businesses, and on Friday he announced that the capacity limits will become recommendations rather than requirements as of Monday. Right now, businesses that don't comply could face fines and jail time.
The move "is a reflection again of the lower COVID numbers that we're seeing across the state," Burgum said.
Some people credit the mask mandate and business restrictions for the drop in numbers; others view them as infringements on personal freedom. Burgum said he was not aware of any people or businesses who have been fined.
Active COVID-19 cases on Friday stood at 1,675, down 84% from the recent high in late November, according to the Health Department. Hospitalizations were at 88, down 73% from the recent high two months ago.
The 14-day rolling average positivity rate has dropped 75% in that time span, and the state’s seven-day rate is the fourth-lowest in the country, according to Burgum.
Health officials on Friday reported 233 new COVID-19 cases from 7,258 tests handled Thursday, and calculated a daily positivity rate of a relatively low 3.82%.
There have been 95,599 confirmed cases in North Dakota since the onset of the pandemic last March, with 92,551 recoveries, 3,699 hospitalizations and 1,373 coronavirus-related deaths, including eight new deaths reported Friday.
Burgum said that although the numbers have improved, the state still has a relatively high number of new cases per capita, hospitalizations have climbed steadily this week and deaths are still being reported.
"We're not yet where we need to be," he said, noting that college students are returning to campus and K-12 students to high schools after their holiday break, which "represent risks for increases in transmissible moments."
North Dakota will not immediately begin vaccinating everyone 65 and older, in a break from new federal guidance, Health Department Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell said Friday.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Tuesday that states should move to vaccinate those 65 and older or with high-risk medical conditions. The Cabinet secretary also said that COVID-19 vaccines being held as reserves would be released so states could vaccinate people more quickly. Those reserves do not exist, The Washington Post reported Friday.
North Dakota in recent weeks has begun vaccinating people in Phase 1B priority groups, starting with people age 75 and older. The state will continue to focus on vaccinating that group, Howell said.
North Dakota receives fewer than 10,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine per week and has not received any increase in allocation yet, Howell said. Phase 1B contains an estimated 230,000 people in North Dakota.
Azar also announced a program to begin in two weeks that would redirect vaccine from states with low rates of administration to states that use their allotted doses more quickly. It is unclear if the incoming Biden administration supports that plan. North Dakota has administered 69% of its doses as of Friday morning. The state is first in the nation at administering vaccine and fourth per capita, Burgum said.
The Health Department launched a tool to help people find locations to get vaccinated, Howell said. People can go to health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available near them.
The pending end of the statewide mask mandate won't change the Legislature’s mask requirement, said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.
The House and Senate adopted a joint rule during the Legislature’s December organizational session that requires everyone in the Legislature’s spaces to wear a face mask or shield covering the nose and mouth. Republican majority leaders have advocated masks as key to helping carry out the Legislature’s work and protect vulnerable people. Videoconference technology is available to help lawmakers, too.
“Masking is important to keep the process going,” Wardner said.
He said he’s not aware of any COVID-19 cases connected to the legislative session.
The state of North Dakota and the North Dakota Medical Association are encouraging people who test positive for COVID-19 and are at high risk for serious complications to talk with their health care providers about new treatment options.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November authorized monoclonal antibodies. The new medications bamlanivimab and casirivimab/imdevimab are designed to reduce the risk of hospitalization and severe illness, according to Dr. Joshua Ranum, an internist with West River Health Services in Hettinger and vice president of the medical association.
"Research has shown that of those who have received the treatment, only 3% required hospitalization,” he said.
The state has begun distributing the medications to major hospitals in North Dakota, including in Bismarck, according to Burgum.
For more information, go to https://bit.ly/38JC1Qj. People also can call the Health Department's COVID-19 hotline at 866-207-2880, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
All North Dakota counties are in the yellow "moderate" risk level on the state's five-level color-coded system. The risk level determines coronavirus-related protocols in place under the ND Smart Restart Plan for everything from businesses to family gatherings. Those protocols are not enforced. For more information, go to https://bit.ly/38npUYV.
The state's COVID-19 Smart Restart County Analysis data dashboard can be accessed at www.health.nd.gov/healthmetrics. A list of vaccine priority groups can be found at https://www.health.nd.gov/covid-19-vaccine-priority-groups. For more detailed information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus.
(Reporter Jack Dura contributed to this story.)
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.