COVID restrictions could take a month or more to show progress, Grand Forks health officials predict

Mike McBain and his daughter, MiKayla, mask up in downtown Grand Forks on Monday, Oct. 2. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

A slew of new COVID-19 precautions could take a while to bend the figurative curve in Grand Forks County.

The figures that governments use to track the spread of the coronavirus have trended sharply upward for weeks or months, prompting North Dakota leaders to last week enact a series of new precautions, most notably a statewide mask mandate and other business restrictions. Health officials who spoke to the Herald said those new rules might not affect the trends in countywide data for at least a few weeks.

“It's certainly going to take more than two weeks to see much of anything,” Joel Walz, the county’s health officer, told the Herald Friday evening, a few hours before his countywide mask mandate was made redundant by a statewide order issued later that night by interim North Dakota Health Officer Dirk Wilke. “I think in a month we should be seeing effects.”

But there are confounding variables, such as the Thanksgiving holiday, which would easily result in more COVID-19 cases as people meet with their extended families.

“Family gatherings are big spreading events,” Walz said.


And, ultimately, the effects on countywide and statewide figures will rely on human behavior, according to Joshua Wynne, the dean of UND's medical school. Wynne, in addition to his role at UND, is heading the university system's response to the pandemic and is the state's top health strategist.

“It's dependent on people actually doing the things that we know work, like wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing, washing their hands, and limiting the size of gatherings,” Wynne said. “Assuming we do that better, which is what I'm very hopeful my fellow North Dakotans will be doing, there will be a lag time.”

Wynne said it’s important that people not let down their guard if they don’t see the countywide COVID figures budge within days of the new statewide rules.

“It takes a while for the curve to reverse itself,” he said. “It has to slow down, peak, and then start down.”

And Debbie Swanson, the director of Grand Forks Public Health, answered along the same lines.

“Transmission risk is lower with greater adherence,” she said. “So the more people that we see wearing masks, a greater percentage of our population that do this, the greater likelihood we'll start to see transmission go down.”

On Friday, Wilke and Gov. Doug Burgum issued a pair of statewide orders that are similar to ones recently issued by Walz and Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, both of whom have since rescinded their orders to stay clear of the statewide edicts .

The net effect of the Wilke and Burgum orders is that all North Dakotans are required to wear a mask or other face covering in businesses, indoor public settings, and outdoor public settings when social distancing cannot be maintained. Beyond that, bars and restaurants throughout the state are required to limit on-site service to 50% of their normal occupancy and not have more than 150 patrons inside at a time. They also are required to close by 10 each night.


As of Tuesday morning, Grand Forks County had recorded a total of 7,050 positive COVID-19 tests, 1,103 of which were “active,” which means the person who tested positive had yet to recover or, in the worst-case scenario, die. About 140 county residents have tested positive each day over the past week, according to a Herald analysis of North Dakota Department of Health data.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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