Holiday, lax attitude likely cause of North Dakota virus hot spot

July 30, 2020

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The pronounced rise of confirmed coronavirus infections around North Dakota’s capital city likely stems from multiple Fourth of July gatherings and citizens’ failure to take precautions to minimize the risk of spreading the disease, a local health official said Wednesday.

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch said there appears to be a lax attitude toward the virus and a belief that precautions such as wearing a mask don’t help.

“Masks in other part of the nation are the norm, but if you’re doing it out here, you’re the minority,” Moch said.

Cases in Burleigh County and neighboring Morton County have tripled this month and account for about a third of the 1,038 confirmed active cases reported Wednesday. The two counties added 36 new positive cases on Wednesday, the Department of Health reported.

Burleigh and Morton counties continue to post the highest percentage of positive tests in the state at an average positive rate of 4.2% for the last 14 days, significantly higher than the statewide rate of 2.79% and Cass County’s 2.72 %, the Health Department reported.

Cass County, which contains the Fargo metropolitan area, reported 10 of the 89 new positive cases Wednesday. Burleigh and Cass counties each reported one new death linked to the virus, raising the statewide death toll to 102.

Gov. Doug Burgum called the trend in Burleigh and Morton counties “particularly concerning” on Tuesday and announced a task force for the combined counties. It’s designed to be similar to one he announced in May in Cass County and Fargo metropolitan area, where local leaders and others successfully concentrated on beefing up tracing and testing efforts in the state’s most populated area.

Burgum has promised resources to the newly formed task force to help with testing and other measures to help curb the spread of the virus.

At the group’s first meeting Wednesday afternoon, Tammy Miller, North Dakota’s chief operating officer, said the makeup of the task force was still being formed, but it would be led by local officials.

The primary goal of the task force is to drive down the region’s 14-day average, at or below the state average, Miller said.

“We’d like to accomplish that as soon as possible,” she said.

Dr. Michael LeBeau of Sanford Health and Kurt Schley of CHI-St. Alexius Health encouraged precautions such as masks and social distancing.

Both said their Bismarck hospitals have the capacity to handle increased cases.

“We’re meeting the demands and meeting the needs of the community right now,” Schley said.

The number of North Dakota patients currently hospitalized in North Dakota was 39 on Wednesday, up four from Tuesday.

LeBeau said 23 people were hospitalized at Sanford, and Schley said seven people were being treated at his hospital on Wednesday.

While the task force in the Fargo area has been successful in driving down positive cases, Moch told The Associated Press the effort likely will be more difficult in Burleigh and Morton counties.

“We are a more conservative area versus Fargo,” she said. “It will be a bit more of a challenge and we’ll have to reach those with different viewpoints.”

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, a physician and member of the Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force, attributed the region’s drop from a high of nearly 10% in positive cases to increased testing and a “vigorous” contact-tracing program used to identify and isolate groups of those who may be infected.

Mahoney said area residents also heeded stay-at-home requests and precaution recommendations such as wearing a mask.

“We had great compliance,” he said. “We saw numbers drop dramatically after that.”

Mahoney said education is key to compliance.

“People are fiercely independent but this disease spreads like crazy,” he said. “The challenge is to motivate your community to do the right thing.”