As our COVID-19 case rates fall in Grand Forks County, the question on everyone’s mind becomes “When can we get rid of the mask order?” As health officer for the city of Grand Forks and Grand Forks County, I am continuously evaluating the mask order and assessing the continued need for this public health measure.

Since late July, Grand Forks Public Health has been publishing the daily metrics that factor into my decision making. The Grand Forks Health Officer’s Dashboard provides a clear color-based depiction of our COVID-19 situation based on 5 metrics – new case rate, testing, percent positivity, percent change and hospital capacity – each weighed based on their relative impact. Of these five factors, new case rate is weighed the highest at 40% of the case score because of the influence case activity has on the potential for spread in our community.

Over the past four weeks, our new cases have remained in the yellow range for 23/28 days and new case counts have averaged over 55 new cases per week. This indicates continued spread of COVID-19 at diminished, but still persistent, rates. While this is a significant decline from our peak case rates in mid-November, it is still enough activity that could easily be the seed of an outbreak if the right conditions exist – such as many unmasked individuals congregating.

Likewise, as we measure the burden that the outbreak in October and November had on the community, we cannot ignore the 55 Grand Forks County residents who lost their lives to COVID-19 between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 and the countless others who were hospitalized or otherwise significantly ill, including many who will have long-term effects from their COVID-19 infection. We also cannot forget about the spread of new COVID-19 variants such as the UK and South African variants.

Charting a path forward, we need to consider the lessons learned in the previous outbreak while weighing the multitude of impacts that policy has on the health of our community. Therefore, I will rescind my health officer’s mask order if we have 14 consecutive days in the green category on my health officer’s dashboard. You can follow along with that progress on the City’s COVID-19 Dashboard website.

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In the meantime, there is much you can do to help us to reduce the need for masking. Good hand hygiene, masking in public places and when social distancing cannot be maintained, and testing remain easy steps you can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Finally, the most important thing you can do is get vaccinated when it is your turn – currently those over the age of 65 and individuals over age 18 with two or more chronic health conditions.

Grand Forks Public Health and our partners make it easy to get vaccinated by calling the Altru COVID hotline at (701)780-6358 and getting an appointment for one of our twice weekly vaccination events.

Dr. Joel Walz is Grand Forks County's health officer.