FARGO — One of the nation’s most prominent voices in the response to COVID-19 shared an anecdote about her short visit to North Dakota to illustrate ways residents are doing well, and not so well, in the fight against the pandemic.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, held a roundtable discussion with Gov. Doug Burgum and other state and city leaders on Saturday, Aug. 29 on the North Dakota State University campus.

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But in the last 24 hours or so prior to that, she stopped at a downtown Fargo coffee shop and a diner, both of which she did not name, to observe.

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At the coffee shop, people were masked up, Birx said, but that was not the case at the diner.

“They (masks) will be crucial going into the fall and they're very critical right now in this area,” she said.

Birx drove to Fargo as part of a weeks-long trip to multiple states to get an on-the-ground understanding of how the virus is spreading and how communities respond.

“That's been really critical for us,” she said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, is seen speaking to the media after her roundtable with Gov. Doug Burgum and other community and state health officials on Saturday, August 29, at the McGovern Alumni Center in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, is seen speaking to the media after her roundtable with Gov. Doug Burgum and other community and state health officials on Saturday, August 29, at the McGovern Alumni Center in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

During the Saturday roundtable inside NDSU’s McGovern Alumni Center, Birx met with Burgum and nearly 20 others, including the mayors of Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks, state legislative leaders and health department officials and representatives of Sanford and Essentia.

The meeting was not open to the public, but Birx spoke and answered questions from the news media afterward.

Her visit comes at a time when North Dakota is setting records with new cases and active cases of the virus, and Burgum said he’s grateful she came here at a “critical juncture” in the state’s fight.

North Dakota is one of fewer than ten states, including South Dakota and Iowa, where new cases are increasing, while other states are either holding steady or seeing a decline in cases, according to analysis by The New York Times.

On Saturday, the state reported 375 new positive cases since the day before and 2,325 active cases of the virus, both pandemic highs. Two additional deaths were reported as well.

North Dakota also hit a milestone in testing with 7,898 tests performed, a daily high since the pandemic began.

Birx had high praise for the state’s commitment to testing and its robust testing capacities.

She referenced an outbreak in Grand Forks County, which had 146 cases in the last day, more than any other in the state.

Many of those numbers came from the University of North Dakota, which had approximately 40 percent of its student body tested before reporting for school, Burgum said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is seen speaking to the media next to Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, on Saturday, August 29, at the McGovern Alumni Center in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is seen speaking to the media next to Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, on Saturday, August 29, at the McGovern Alumni Center in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

That high volume of testing allows schools to find people who are asymptomatic and isolate them quickly, to lessen the spread.

Birx strongly advised college students to isolate at school and not return home if they’re positive, so as not to spread the virus to parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents, who are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

When asked about public schools returning to classes next week, Birx said abundant testing and quick isolation will help.

“We can change the future for our children, for those teachers, for the staff at those schools by decreasing the number of cases in the community,” she said.

Birx also complimented the Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard on its website, because it’s updated daily and integrates all elements of the outbreak, including test positivity, cases, hospitalizations and mortality.

Not all states do that, she said.

As for conversations with local hospital leadership, Birx said she wanted to ensure that both the anti-viral drug Remdesivir and convalescent plasma treatment were available to people who are hospitalized with COVID-19.

“I know that the governor has been critical in aligning those ... supplies to the hospitals here,” she said.

Birx also spoke of point-of-care COVID-19 tests that don’t require machines in order to be read, which could be ideal for use in more rural states.

She said under a $750 million federal contract, some 100 to 150 million of those tests are being purchased and should be available to states in the coming months.

“It's really a message of hope, combined with common sense ways that we can change the course of this virus now while we wait to have an effective vaccine,” she said.

One lone protester could be seen outside the Alumni Center, after the event wrapped up.

Malachi Petersen, 26, of West Fargo, holds a sign outside the N.D.S.U. Alumni Center in Fargo, where Dr. Deborah Birx met regarding North Dakota's coronavirus response with Gov. Doug Burgum and other state and city leaders. Robin Huebner / The Forum
Malachi Petersen, 26, of West Fargo, holds a sign outside the N.D.S.U. Alumni Center in Fargo, where Dr. Deborah Birx met regarding North Dakota's coronavirus response with Gov. Doug Burgum and other state and city leaders. Robin Huebner / The Forum

Malachi Petersen, 26, of West Fargo, stood on the sidewalk with a sign that read “Trump denied and North Dakotans died.”

He said it referred to when President Donald Trump called COVID-19 a “democratic hoax.”

To date, the virus has killed more than 182,000 people in the U.S. and 141 deaths in North Dakota.

“The feds have kind of kicked the can down to the states, and the states have kicked the can down to the local level. It doesn't seem like anyone's taking any leadership,” Petersen said.

He said while he thinks Burgum is a good governor, smart and data-driven, he wishes Burgum would raise the coronavirus threat level with the increase in cases.

According to Burgum’s office, here is the list of attendees at Saturday’s roundtable, in addition to Birx, Burgum and First Lady Kathryn Burgum:

- Tammy Miller, COO from the Governor’s Office

- North Dakota National Guard Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann

- Irum Zaidi, Birx’s chief epidemiologist

- Kirby Kruger, ND Dept. of Health Disease Control Director

- Chris Jones, Dept. of Human Services Director

- Chet Pollert, state House Majority Leader

- Joan Heckaman, Senate Minority Leader

- Josh Boschee, House Minority Leader

- Mayors Steve Bakken of Bismarck, Brandon Bochenski of Grand Forks and Tim Mahoney of Fargo

- Dr. Bill Heegaard, Essentia Health West Market President

- Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford Health Vice President/Medical Officer

- Jon Riewer, president of Eventide Senior Living Communities

- Sherry Adams, Southwestern District Health Unit Director

- Dr. Paul Carson, NDSU Professor of Practice

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