BISMARCK — State officials are considering options for reopening nursing homes and other long-term facilities for visitation in the near future.

Gov. Doug Burgum's executive order restricting visitation at nursing homes remains in place as most other restrictions on movement and business closures have been lifted.

Nursing homes are viewed as especially vulnerable to deadly outbreaks of COVID-19 because many residents are 65 or older and have underlying conditions. The state has heavily prioritized testing in the facilities over the last three weeks.

President Donald Trump's administration on Monday released guidelines for reopening the facilities that urge states to take a careful approach. To fully reopen to visitors under the guidelines, nursing homes would have to go nearly a month without a new case of COVID-19.

Burgum said Tuesday, May 19, that reopening the facilities would be "tricky" since the illness can spread quickly in close living spaces and North Dakota has seen 377 cases tied to residents and employees of the facilities to date.

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The governor noted that the approach to allowing nursing homes to reopen could occur on county by county basis. Many rural parts of the state have been largely unaffected by the virus, while others, namely the Fargo and Grand Forks area, have seen a significant majority of the state's cases. Nearly three-quarters of the cases in North Dakota long-term care facilities have come in Fargo.

The Villa Maria rehabilitation center is seen Thursday, April 9, at 3102 S. University Dr., Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service
The Villa Maria rehabilitation center is seen Thursday, April 9, at 3102 S. University Dr., Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

Human Services director Chris Jones said Tuesday the state is working with the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, an advocacy group, to come up with a protocol for allowing visitation at the facilities. Jones said he hoped to have some state preliminary guidelines prepared by Monday.

Burgum also addressed on Tuesday the wide disparity between COVID-19 cases and testing in Cass County, which contains nearly a quarter of the state's population and encompasses Fargo and West Fargo. Cass County accounts for more than 70% of the active COVID-19 cases, but only 22% of the people tested in North Dakota reside in the county.

The governor said last week the state would aim to close the testing gap, but it has grown wider since then. Burgum offered few specifics Tuesday, but he said the state would be shifting its resources and focus to the Fargo area. He again urged residents with symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath and fever, to seek testing at their health care provider.

"Very few states in the nation are down to a one-front battle, and when we've got a one-front battle, we should just win the war right now," Burgum said.

Earlier in the day, the state Department of Health announced 63 new cases of COVID-19.

The department also confirmed the death of a Cass County man in his 90s from the illness.

Like every other victim of the illness in North Dakota, the man had underlying health conditions, according to the department. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says older adults and people with HIV, diabetes, asthma, liver disease or other conditions that compromise one's immune system are at a greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

Forty-five North Dakotans, including 34 residents of Cass County, have now died from the illness that has claimed more than 90,000 lives nationwide. At least 29 of the deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to the department.

A total of 1,994 North Dakota residents have tested positive, but nearly 65% have recovered from the illness, including 50 announced Tuesday. There are 32 residents hospitalized with the illness.

Fifty-six of the new cases Tuesday came from Cass County. The county now has 1,229 known cases, but the department reports that 705 residents have recovered after previously testing positive.

The other seven new cases Tuesday came from Bottineau, Burleigh, Ramsey, Ransom and Richland counties. The new case in Bottineau County, which lies along the U.S.-Canada border in the central part of the state, is the first of the outbreak.

The state announced nearly 2,000 test results Tuesday, however about 800 of the people in the latest batch had previously been tested for the virus. Burgum has stated that he would like to see regular testing of vulnerable residents, especially those living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

The department also announced Tuesday that nearly 500 tests had been performed on patients and staff at the State Hospital in Jamestown. During the pandemic, all new admissions are also screened and tested for COVID-19.

A total of 69,902 tests have been performed, but some residents have been tested more than once.

Burgum said the state and its health care providers aim to perform 4,000 tests per day by the end of the month. He has maintained throughout the pandemic that widespread available testing is the key to restoring normalcy to work and home life.

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