BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum announced Thursday, Sept. 3, that he is raising the official COVID-19 risk level for eight North Dakota counties with high rates of infection. The governor had faced backlash for his reluctance to adjust the state's virus color-coded gauge.
The counties moving up to the moderate, or "yellow," risk designation are Burleigh, Morton, Grand Forks, Stark, Williams, McLean, Barnes and Benson. Three of the states largest metro areas — Bismarck, Grand Forks and Dickinson — are encompassed by the counties.
Prior to Thursday, all of North Dakota had stayed in the low, or "green," level since May.
Burgum also announced that 13 rural counties will move down to the "blue" or "new normal" designation because residents who live there are "unlikely to be at a high risk" of contracting COVID-19 given the low rate of spread. The blue designation is functionally no different from the green designation.
The governor said Cass County, which includes the Fargo area, is staying at the "green" COVID-19 designation because it is performing a lot of testing and has a relatively low rate of positive tests despite also having more than 300 active cases.
A move up to the yellow designation for the eight counties does not trigger any legal mandates on businesses, but it does change the state's recommendations for restaurants and large gatherings. Bars and restaurants in the counties are advised to serve only up to 50% of normal capacity, while large venues are urged to hold no more than 250 people at 50% of normal capacity.
The recommendations will go into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday, and Burgum said he hopes restaurants and other businesses will implement them before the busy Labor Day weekend. He added that each county's risk level will be reevaluated on a weekly basis.
Burgum displayed a hesitance over the last two months to move any part of the state to a higher level as cases, deaths and positivity rates rose.
Health officials have suggested for more than a month that Burgum should move up part or all of the state on the COVID-19 dial.
Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch told Forum News Service earlier Thursday that Burgum should bump up the risk level for Burleigh and Morton counties to better reflect the severity of the illness in the Bismarck area. Burgum said last month he had disagreed with recently resigned State Health Officer Andrew Stahl and other top doctors who believe the risk level should be dialed up to reflect the rising case count.
Moch said the green designation was underselling the elevated risk of the illness and a higher risk level determined by the state's leader could motivate Bismarck and Mandan residents to take mask-wearing and social distancing more seriously.
Burgum said the amended risk levels aim to better show residents how the pandemic is affecting their area. The first-term Republican said he hopes residents of the yellow-level counties will make smart decisions, like wearing masks and avoiding large crowds, so the state can avoid any mandatory business shutdowns like the ones imposed in March and April.
Burgum's Democratic-NPL opponent, Shelley Lenz, criticized the changes to the risk levels, saying the governor's color-wheel system is still "arbitrary" and "meaningless."
Lenz, who has been a frequent critic of Burgum's coronavirus response, said the gauge is not based in science or knowledge of epidemiology. The veterinarian noted that she has employees who commute from blue-level Billings County to yellow-level Stark County, which effectively bridges the communities from a virus-spreading standpoint and renders any contrast in risk level useless.
The governor noted that his office has changed the criteria for each color-coded level to be based on three metrics: active cases, positivity rate and quantity of testing. Under the old criteria, the state exceeded the benchmarks for both the green or yellow levels of risk.
Burgum also announced that he has appointed Dr. Paul Mariani to serve as interim state health officer. Mariani, who will assume the role later this month, currently serves as the associate chief of staff for education at the Fargo VA Health Care System. He takes over for Dr. Andrew Stahl, who resigned abruptly last month.
Active cases climb as Grand Forks outbreak grows
Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health reported 360 new cases of COVID-19.
The department also confirmed the deaths of a Williams County woman older than 100 and a Burleigh County man in his 60s. Like the vast majority of North Dakotans who have succumbed to the illness, both had underlying health conditions, according to the department.
The department says 150 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 83 residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
There are now 2,437 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus — a steep hike from Wednesday.
Grand Forks County reported 79 new cases Thursday, bringing the county to a state-high 491 active cases. Many of the cases from the county reported in the last two weeks are believed to be tied to the University of North Dakota, which aims to test all students, faculty and staff as the fall semester begins. The university reports that 192 students, faculty and staff have tested positive and another 647 people linked to the university are in quarantine.
Sixty-seven of the next cases came from Stark County, which includes Dickinson. The county has seen a massive jump in infections over the last month and now has 254 active cases.
Sixty of the new cases reported Thursday came from Cass County, which includes Fargo. The state's most populous county has 309 active cases. North Dakota State University has reported 98 student and employee cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks, but university system officials recently said turnout for testing on college campuses has been lagging.
Stutsman County, which encompasses Jamestown, reported 29 new cases on Thursday. The county now has 101 active infections and has seen incremental rises to its case count over the last two weeks.
Nineteen of the new cases came from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county has the second most active cases with 408. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 24 new cases and has 142 active cases.
About 5.5% of the 6,544 test results announced Thursday came back positive, but 9.6% of residents tested for the first time received a positive result.
North Dakota does not report a seven-day rolling average for positivity rate as many other states do, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 10.1% for tests taken on previously untested residents.
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