BISMARCK — North Dakota ranks among the top states in the country in testing per capita, but it has yet to hit its goal to process at least 4,000 tests per day.
Gov. Doug Burgum said at a press conference on Wednesday, June 3, the state laboratory in Bismarck has the capacity to meet the goal, but the demand for testing has not produced enough samples to test much more than 3,000 per day. The state announced 2,626 test results Wednesday.
Burgum noted that health officials have planned testing events that didn't draw as many residents seeking tests as they would have hoped.
He said state officials are looking at ways to increase demand for testing, including opening up the criteria for receiving a test. Currently, testing is prioritized for vulnerable people, those who work around them and residents showing symptoms of the illness. The state has done aggressive repeated testing on residents and workers at nursing homes, and Burgum said no new residents and only one new employee has tested positive over the last two days.
The governor floated the idea of testing visitors at nursing homes, which could help inform the state's plans to allow resumed visitation at the facilities.
Burgum also said the state would strongly consider performing targeted testing of university students and faculty. He noted that the state had not yet been faced with the possibility of COVID-19 spreading through college dormitories and that future testing strategy would have to account for that.
Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health announced 33 new cases of COVID-19, most of which come from the state's hotspot and largest metro area.
The department also confirmed the death of a Cass County man in his 70s from COVID-19.
The man's death brings North Dakota's total number of fatalities from the illness to 66. All but 11 of the deaths have come in residents of Cass County, which encompasses Fargo and has seen the vast majority of the positive cases in the state. Fifty-one of the deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Like every other victim of the illness, the department said all four had underlying health conditions. 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. However, old age itself is not considered an underlying condition.
Medical professionals listed COVID-19 as the official cause of death for 51 of the state's victims. Eight were determined to have died primarily due to another condition while infected with COVID-19, and seven more death records are pending. The department also notes that three people not included in the official death count were presumed to have died from COVID-19 but did not test positive while they were alive.
Twenty-one of the new cases Wednesday came from Cass County, which includes Fargo and West Fargo. The county now has had 1,783 known cases, but the department reports more than three-quarters of the infected residents in the county have recovered. More than 70% of the currently infected North Dakotans reside in Cass County.
Five of the new cases came from Stutsman County, which includes Jamestown. The county has largely avoided the worst of the pandemic and has just 11 currently infected residents.
The other seven new cases Wednesday came from Burleigh, Grand Forks, Ransom, Walsh and Ward counties.
A total of 2,679 North Dakota residents have tested positive, but four in five have recovered from the illness. There are 34 residents hospitalized with the illness.
Political leaders across the country have suggested that another spike in cases could be coming to American metro areas in which protesters gathered en masse to condemn police brutality. Rallies held in Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks drew hundreds of demonstrators over the weekend, and social distancing guidelines were not widely practiced.
Burgum said Wednesday it will be "interesting to see" how the protests affect the number of COVID-19 cases in the state and that state officials have always been concerned with large gatherings. He added that young people, many of whom took part in the protests, are more likely to not display any symptoms if they contract the virus, so they should consider physically distancing themselves from loved ones who are more vulnerable to suffering from the illness.
Several officials from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe attended Wednesday's press conference and spoke about testing initiatives on the tribe's reservation. With the help of the health departments in both Dakotas, the tribe has conducted more than five testing events and managed to prevent the virus from spreading on the reservation. Only four residents of the reservation have tested positive, and three of those have already recovered.
The tribe recently reopened its casinos under virus-prevention guidelines, and tribe health official Margaret Gates said the strategy going forward may include testing a random sample of the 420 employees at the casinos.
A total of 101,327 tests have been performed, but some residents have been tested more than once. Most of those tested in the latest batch had previously been tested for the virus. Burgum said the state is performing regular testing of those living and working in nursing homes.
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