BISMARCK — Two doctors made an impassioned plea Friday, Sept. 4, to mandate face masks in the Bismarck area as COVID-19 surges through North Dakota's capital city.

State Field Medical Officer Dr. Joan Connell told politicians, business leaders and health officials on the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force that mask mandates are proven effective where they've been put in place and the quickly depleting hospital capacity in the area means it's time to take more drastic measures.

Gov. Doug Burgum has opted not to mandate masks statewide like many other governors, instead saying the state is relying on "personal responsibility." Local and county officials can require mask-wearing but, so far, only tribal leaders on two of the state's American Indian reservations have taken the step.

North Dakota is now nationally identified as a hot spot for the illness as active cases reached a pandemic high on Friday. Burleigh and Morton counties, which encompass Bismarck and Mandan, have seen a steep and sustained rise in infections since early July.

Connell drew a direct connection between the lack of responsibility displayed by adults who chose not to wear masks in public and Bismarck area school children only being able to attend school half of the week on a "hybrid" schedule.

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"Our kids are learning, at most, 50% of what they should be. Leaders, is this really worth it to have masks be voluntary?" Connell said. "I hope the irony isn't stuck only on me that the population we've argued has been least at risk for significant infection ... are the only population required to go half time and wear masks."

Dr. David Field, a family care physician at Sanford Health in Bismarck, said there is direct and conclusive scientific evidence through recent studies that mandating masks significantly reduces the rate at which COVID-19 spreads through a community.

Field said Bismarck area leaders must do more than simply recommend masks and social distancing.

"As a physician, I have to say (mandating masks) is the only way we can prevent or stop this," Field said. "As (Albert) Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. We are now doing insanity and trying to expect that the results are going to follow our wishes when we have to do the hard work to make it happen."

Morton County commissioner and state Homeland Security director Cody Schulz pushed back on the idea of mandating masks, saying that he doesn't want to erode public trust in government officials. Schulz added that he is heavily in favor of encouraging voluntary mask-wearing through aggressive outreach campaigns.

"My concern at an elected-leader level is that we can mandate it, but if there isn't compliance with actually wearing it, now we lost some credibility and trust with the public," Schulz said.

Connell said she traveled around the Midwest earlier in the pandemic to observe the differences between states that had and had not mandated masks and noted that the degree of mask-wearing is clearly much higher in places where it's required by law. Connell said she found in studying the issue that fining businesses that skirt the mask rule is one of the best ways to ensure residents comply.

Schulz and Burleigh County Commission Chairman Jerry Woodcox committed to opening up their next meetings to a public discussion of mandating masks, but Schulz said he would only consider the move if the cities of Bismarck, Mandan and Lincoln, and Burleigh and Morton counties could all agree on the measure.

North Dakota sees all-time high in active cases

The North Dakota Department of Health on Friday reported 343 new cases of COVID-19 as the outbreak intensifies in the state's three largest metro areas.

There are now 2,513 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus — the highest level of the pandemic.

The number of hospitalized residents remained at 67 from Thursday. Seventeen patients are in intensive care.

Seventy-eight of the new cases reported Friday came from Cass County, which includes Fargo. The state's most populous county has 358 active cases. North Dakota State University has reported 119 student and employee cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks, but university officials recently said turnout for testing on college campuses has been lagging.

Grand Forks County reported 68 new cases Friday, bringing the county to a state-high 494 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 187 students, faculty and staff have tested positive and another 566 people linked to the university are in quarantine.

Thirty-eight of the new cases came from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county has the second most active cases with 411. Morton County reported 28 new cases and has 153 active cases.

Stark County, which includes Dickinson, reported 43 new cases on Friday. The county has seen a dramatic increase in infections over the last month and now has 272 active cases.

Fifteen new cases were reported in Stutsman County, which has seen an unprecedented uptick in cases over the last two weeks and now has 114 active cases.

Twenty-nine counties reported at least one case Friday, including many small, rural counties. All but six of the 53 counties in the state have at least one active case.

About 5.1% of the 6,713 test results announced Friday came back positive, but 8.63% 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 9.5% for tests taken on previously untested residents.

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