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Coronavirus outbreak
North Dakota to offer COVID-19 vaccines to general public beginning March 29
  • Updated

North Dakota is opening the gates to its COVID-19 vaccine to anyone who wants it by Monday, March 29. The announcement Friday follows on federal guidance to make COVID-19 vaccines available to the general public by at least May 1.

Molly Howell, North Dakota’s Immunization Program Manager, said the change is not because they are done vaccinating people in high risk groups.

“People who are essential workers or those with underlying health conditions should still be vaccinated as they are either at high risk for severe COVID-19 or at high risk for getting COVID-19,” she said. “This change is being made more because most North Dakotans are essential workers, or have an underlying health condition, and we’re hearing a lot of confusion over who is and isn’t an essential worker.”

The other issue is that some may not self-identify as having an underlying health condition like obesity or heart disease, even if they are at risk due to that. They also want college and university students to be able to access the vaccine before going home for the summer.

Some providers may already have vaccine available to the general public even before March 29, Howell added, depending on the demand for the vaccine where the provider is located.

Getting vaccinated is the best way to shut down mutations that are leading to COVID-19 variants, some of which could potentially turn out to be more transmissable and/or more deadly, Director of North Dakota Disease Control Dr. Kirby Krueger said.

“For a virus to replicate, it has to get inside a person,” he said. “For mutations to occur, that virus has to replicate. When people are infected, we are just sort of the incubators for that virus, and every time that virus replicates, that is when mutations occur.”

North Dakota so far has 11 variant cases, although its most common one is the UK variant. So far, the available vaccines are demonstrating protective capability when it comes to serious illness and disease, Dr. Jeffrey Hostetter said.

“Even if you’ve had COVID — and this is important — even if you had COVID, you should still get the vaccine,” he added. “There’s, especially if you’re one of the long haulers, the people who have persistent symptoms. There are many people it turns out who are getting relief from their symptoms, just from getting the vaccine. We have no idea why that is. There’s no research that I’ve seen. There’s a lot of people doing hand waving, but nobody knows for sure, but it definitely is real.”

Hostetter said he believes everyone should get vaccinated.

“There was an analysis that was just published in JAMA a couple of days ago that said 75 percent of people have at least one risk factor,” he said. “So there’s really no reason to limit the vaccine, which is one of the reasons that we’re announcing today that everybody can get the vaccine.”

Howell said more than half of North Dakotans have at least one underlying health condition that puts them at increased risk of a serious illness from COVID-19.

“More than half of North Dakotans are obese, and so a lot of people aren’t going to, you know, walk into a. clinic and say, ‘Hey, I’m obese, can I get vaccinated today, or I’m a smoker, can I get vaccinated today.’ And so this allows us to better communicate with individuals that everyone 18 and older should be getting a COVID-19 vaccine is our recommendation.”

Life expectancies dropped by a year during 2020 due to COVID-19, Hostetter said, and he has been able to see the effects when he does his nursing home rounds, and sees so many fewer people than there were.

“If you hear people tell you otherwise, they’re just wrong,” he added. “You can’t argue with that. And if you don’t believe me, just come on nursing home rounds with me someday, and I’ll show you that.”

North Dakota is still leading the nation when it comes to administering the COVID-19 vaccine. At least 27 percent of North Dakotans have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 16 percent are fully vaccinated.

“Those who haven’t been vaccinated are encouraged to take advantage of this expanded access to protect themselves and those around them, build community immunity, keep our schools and businesses open and help end the pandemic,” Governor Doug Burgum said.

Those in high risk groups not yet vaccinated are still encouraged to get vaccinated, Burgum added, to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

Anyone having trouble finding the vaccine can call the state’s hotline 1-866-207-2880 and select option 2 for assistance in finding the vaccine. They can also, for a limited time, still use the states vaccine locator tool, online at health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator, to locate the clinic nearest them. The state will, however, be transitioning to the CDC’s vaccine finder, which is at vaccinefinder.org.

Mental health
Even with a new program, Eckert Youth Home kept the same purpose, mission, commitment

Eckert Youth Home in Williston and its staff have one purpose.

It’s nothing elaborate and it’s not something compiled with fancy words or phrases. Instead, it’s a straightforward and simple purpose.

They help kids by shaping lives and building futures. And although the services that Eckert provided changed, the purpose remained the same, the mission and commitment remained the same and it is still a Christian organization.

In March 2020, Eckert hosted an open house where they announced the opening of the Adolescent Addictions Residential Treatment Center. This new program is the first and only one of its kind in the state right now.

Eckert launched this initiative to “stem the rising tide of youth with substance use disorders,” according to the center’s Winter 2020 newsletter.

It’s a program that is funded by the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division and the Fred and Clara Eckert Foundation for Children.

Prior to that, Eckert was a licensed residential child care facility for 43 years, which is what most people still think it is.

However, in 2018 the Family First Prevention Services Act changed that.

The law was passed as a way to change the way the country looked at child welfare and is geared toward preventive measures to keep children out of foster care and in the home (if able).

As a result, John Harper, the facility administrator at Eckert, said they needed to pivot in a new direction.

“For many years this was more of a residential child care facility — so just think long term foster care,” Harper said. “It was always the idea that it wouldn’t change and of course the Family First Prevention Act came into being and we had to pivot. We had to say, ‘What are we going to do next?’ And there was always a lot of ideas…but we were going toward residential treatment.”

Harper said when he came on board in October 2019, his predecessor told him that Eckert was planning to shift toward offering residential treatment to its clients and then there was Dr. Leah Hoffman, the clinical director at Eckert and licensed master addiction counselor.

Hoffman is a Williston native and Harper said she started to look into other prominent needs not just within the Williston community but in the state.

And there was a need, a very serious need that oftentimes gets overlooked —substance abuse among youth.

Hoffman said when they switched over to this new program, it was a shift in thinking for a lot of people.

That’s because prior to September 2019, Eckert was seen as a place that was a home for kids. Now, Hoffman said they are a place where kids are admitted to, like a hospital.

But, Harper said regardless of what they offer they are and will always be there for kids.

“Always been for kids and always been the desire that we wanted to help these kids and shape their lives and build their futures,” Harper said.

Hoffman said Eckert’s old program shut down in September 2019 and it was six months until the new program was open.

What does Eckert do?

Now, Eckert helps with more than just substance abuse. The treatment goes beyond that.

They have mental health treatments, there are different assessments and screenings, there is family therapy and family education and the list goes on.

Hoffman said they make sure that everyone’s basic needs are met and when it comes down to it clients are in about 20-25 hours of programming every week.

And that programming includes things like individual therapy and group therapy and is also addiction specific and mental health specific, Hoffman said.

They also learn life skills like cooking or doing laundry, and Hoffman said even though some of the things they do might seem superficial from the outside looking in, they’re significant purpose behind it.

“They get to go to movies, they go swimming, we take them to the trampoline park...we do a lot of those things that look fun but the purpose behind them, like you said, is for them to be able to be a kid and figure out things that they can do that bring them joy without using,” Hoffman said.

All these activities, from swimming to fishing to just being in nature, are all ways that Hoffman said helps clients figure out new experiences sober and how just changing some of the day-to-day things they do and planning purposefully can change their mood and help.

The program helps youth ages 14-17 and is catered to each individual based on what their needs are so it could be three to four weeks long or three months long, it just depends on the symptoms and treatment plans, Hoffman said. In addition to treatments, Eckert also helps youth keep up with their education whether it’s maintaining core credits, getting their GED or focusing on career exploration.

Plus, because Eckert is in a contract with the state, they can take any youth from anywhere in North Dakota including Williston regardless of their ability to pay, Hoffman said.

“So if we have a youth who doesn’t have insurance...we can still treat them. There’s no barriers based on ability to pay right now for our residential treatment,” Hoffman said.

This contract is good until June of this year, but Hoffman said they’re hoping it continues.

Breaking stereotypes

On top of all the things Eckert offers, there’s something else that they do–they break stereotypes.

Harper mentioned some of these stereotypes they see and he said as a parent it’s something he understands all too well.

He said when it comes down to it, the last thing a parent wants to deal with is their child “having a problem.” He said that statement alone represents a major stereotype because it’s stating that the child has a problem instead of pointing out that the child needs help.

He also said that there is a sense of shame that parents encounter when they find out their child is using because they feel like they did something wrong as a parent.

“As a parent that’s so hard but here at Eckert we totally turn that around. We say, ‘It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you.’ And we get to the route cause. I had to learn a lot of that when I first came on board here,” Harper said. “It’s so ingrained that (if your kid had an addiction) this is the worst thing that can happen.”

Moving forward

Hoffman said Eckert is constantly trying to increase awareness of behavioural health within the community as well as explore other programming and options that still align with Eckert’s mission and values.

“Our niche is residential treatment for kids, but we’re considering outpatient as an option,” Hoffman said. “We’re also exploring other ways we can help families.”

She said ultimately they want to grow and expand but they want to do so responsibly, or in other words they don’t want to grow too fast.

“We are really dialed into the quality of our work because doing services that you’re not prepared to do at a high standard is not necessarily a good thing,” Hoffman said. “We are really particular about the quality and standard of our work.”

Additionally, Hoffman said they are working on how to add more providers to the community. Right now they are training social workers and addiction counselors and have several interns and trainees.

Plus, Eckert also received the leadership award, which has helped with many of the goals they have.

“We are not impressive just because we are the only ones providing this type of service, more-so because we are providing really high quality treatment,” Hoffman said.

And Harper said this new program at Eckert was able to become something because of Hoffman.

“She came up with the program. She did a great job and that’s why we’re so effective. This is her passion, her field of study...and we’re blessed.”

Eckert started out as a dream in the hearts of Fred and Clara Eckert, Harper said. They had no kids but wanted to help kids and so they left a sum of money to start the Eckert homes.

That was 43 years ago, and for another 43 plus years Eckert will continue that dream to help kids when they need it most.

PSC encourages AARP, MDU to return to negotiations in rate case
  • Updated

AARP and Montana Dakota Utilities have been encouraged to sit down again with the Public Service Commission’s Advocacy staff to see if they can hammer out an arrangement that all three parties will agree to, after a two-day hearing into a rate case that seeks a collective increase of $6.886 million.

While that is a decrease from the interim rates, which went into effect Jan. 1, a settlement agreement shifts the bulk of that increased cost to the residential category. That will result in an increase to residential customer bills to $25.91 for the fixed fee.

AARP objected to both shifting the cost allocation to residential customers and putting it in the form of a fixed fee. That has a disproportionate effect on low and fixed-income families, whose sole means of managing cost increases is to further adjust their temperature dials.

“It feels like there’s some room for movement to look at the interim rates allocation, maybe tweaking the interim rates allocation so you soften some of the negative impacts on some of the customer groups,” Commissioner Julie Fedorchak told the parties. “It would be, I think, very positive if we could get an agreement with everybody on board, and I feel like there’s room for, there’s some willingness to move and compromise a bit.”

Fedorchak also suggested that the parties discuss ways they can reach low-income consumers to improve use of LIHEAP or provide resources for weatherization to support that group.

Paul Sanderson, representing MDU, said the negotiations had been fruitful and the company would be willing to try again to see if they can resolve the issues AARP had with the settlement.

However, he added the company and AARP have a fundamental difference when it comes to the fairness of a fixed rate fee for the delivery system.

AARP’s experts testified that larger demand customers are a bigger driver of additional needs for infrastructure, and that it is not fair to put all the charge for delivery into a fixed fee. Some should come about through volumetric fees, which better reflect demand-driven costs on the system.

Otherwise, the lower income households, which can least afford increased fees, are subsidizing needs that are more driven by larger demand consumers. The more those fees get driven into a fixed rate, the less anyone can do to mitigate increases by adjusting their temperature dial. And they are the group least able to afford it and most in need of ways to mitigate such increases.

MDU experts, on the other hand, testified that the rate cost study is accurately determining the fair share for each customer class, and that their model will encourage more conservation.

“What we have seen in the past few years is, you know, I believe the testimony was that the average user has gone from 92 decatherms down to 88, and we believe these are all part of that, but more importantly we just believe it’s the most fundamental and fair way to collect these charges,” Sanderson said.

In addition, Sanderson said the company has already established in cases prior to this one that residential customers haven’t been paying their fair share of the delivery cost to provide the service.

“The company is, you know, and the staff’s settlement proposal, is an attempt to get closer to that,” Sanderson said. “It still doesn’t get to parity, but it’s a step that both I think advocacy staff and the company felt is a step in the right direction in this case.”

Sanderson added the company has already made many concessions to get to the settlement agreement, dropping its allowed return from 10.2 to 9.3, and that they would ask, if AARP and the company can’t reach an agreement that the PSC approve the settlement agreement as is.

Coffman said the issue of costs getting stuffed into fixed fees is an issue that a large percentage of AARP’s members care about, and is not just some “ivory tower” issue or philosophical difference. It simply reflects a desire by customers to have more, not less, control over their bills by their behavior.

“What we’re really hoping for is some moderation of the shift on residential customers in this case,” Coffman said. “And what I heard today from all the parties is there is a reasonable range here that we can look to.”

Barring a settlement agreement, however, Coffman said they would ask is that the PSC stick with the interim rates, rather than disrupt anyone’s rates from what they are already paying during the pandemic.

Coronavirus outbreak
Decrease in COVID numbers allows for more visitation among state's long-term care facilities
  • Updated

Lower COVID-19 infection rates and loosening state regulations have led to more long-term care facilities opening up some visitation.

Members of the North Dakota VP3 Team, North Dakota Long Term Care Association and Reuniting Residents and Families Task Force held a briefing on Wed, March 17 to give an update on the pandemic within North Dakota’s long-term care facilities.

Of the state’s more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19, around 10 percent were from long-term care facilities. While 10 percent of cases came from those facilities, they represented about 60 percent of the state’s COVID deaths.

“As I look at this last year, it’s been tremendously difficult on all of North Dakota, but most especially our long-term care facility residents, staff and families.” said North Dakota Long Term Care Association President Shelly Peterson. “It has been a year that none of us quite expected and none of us ever would have thought would have lasted this long. But there are really some great rays of hope.”

One of those rays comes from a recent decrease in visitor restrictions. Peterson said the change in guidelines is related to the decreasing number of cases within the state. Currently, she said, there are only six long-term care facility residents and 26 staff positive with COVID. This is a drastic change from November, when there were around 1,630 positive residents and staff.

“We’re very hopeful for this spring, hopeful for these decreasing numbers, and hopeful that visitation is going to be impacted in a meaningful way.” Peterson said.

Peterson also gave credit to the state’s vaccine distribution for the positive impact it has had on North Dakota’s long-term facility residents. Seth Fisher and Rosanne Schmidt, the state’s Vulnerable Population Protection Plan State Regional Coordinators, spoke more on the new visitation guidelines, with Schmidt saying that around 15 of the state’s 79 facilities had some form of limited visitation.

Schmidt added that vaccination also plays a part in visitation, as residents who have received the vaccine are more able to receive visitors.

“We can do more things with visitation for those that are vaccinated,” Schmidt explained. “We have residents that have a really high percentage of vaccinations; I think we’re at about 90 percent or very close to it. (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’) benchmark was 70 percent, and we’re well above that in North Dakota.”

Additionally, with Gov. Doug Burgum rescinding several COVID-19 related executive orders, Schmidt said long-term care facilities now have more freedom in decision making for how they would like to manage their facilities from a visitation standpoint.

“We still have CDC guidance that we will continue to put together and keep updated with the latest information,” Schmidt added. “But they do have more latitude in local decisions.”

Fisher applauded the inclusion of monoclonal antibody therapeutics as a major victory in the state’s battle against the virus. That, paired with the vaccine, have helped pave the road to facilities allowing residents to spend time with their families, something many other states have yet to allow.

“The addition of vaccination and monoclonal antibody therapeutics have really been huge tools that we now have in our toolbox that we didn’t have when we were at the peak of this pandemic,” Fisher said. “When we look back and reflect on the past year, where we were then and where we are now, we’ve really been a national leader in a lot of categories. One of those has been the ability to have open visitation far earlier than many other states to our borders.”

For more information regarding the state’s COVID-19 guidelines and response, visit www.health.nd.gov/diseases-conditions/coronavirus.

Wick community journalists earn perfect score as trusted news sites
  • Updated

NewsGuard, a journalism and technology company that rates the credibility of news and information websites, has collectively awarded 22 Wick Communications websites and their associated newsrooms a perfect 100 out of 100 score for credibility and transparency.


A screenshot of the report from NewsGuard giving Wick Communications a perfect score.

Newsgaurd noted Wick Communications’ community news coverage “generally takes a neutral tone” and that sites clearly label opinion content.

Wick sites also earned perfect marks for consistently publishing corrections, prominent presentation of their ownership, the presence of Contact Us pages containing the names and contact information of editorial staff, attributions on stories with contact information for authors, and the clear distinction between editorial and advertising content.

In earning a perfect score, Wick newsrooms join the ranks of much larger news organizations such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. According to NewsGuard, only 20% of the 6,000 news and information websites it has rated have been awarded a perfect score.

For context, NewsGuard has rated the right-leaning Fox News website at 69.5, left-leaning Daily Kos at 37, CNN at 87.5, conservative Newsmax at 35 and liberal MSNBC at 70.

NewsGuard was started in 2018 by co-CEOs Steven Brill (best-known for starting Court TV) and Gordon Crovitz (former publisher of The Wall Street Journal). Its website (https://www.newsguardtech.com/) asserts that the 6,000 websites its team of trained journalists has evaluated are “responsible for 95% of engagement with news in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Italy.”

NewsGuard users access its nine-point “nutrition labels” via a browser plugin that displays green (credible) or red (questionable) icons next to sources appearing in search engine results and social media, with access to rating scores and summaries and links to the full site review. According to NewsGuard, it has millions of users via partnerships with more than 750 public libraries globally, technology platforms such as Microsoft’s Edge mobile browser, and directly via a $2.95 per month subscription via a Google Chrome browser extension.

“With the amount of misinformation always just a click away, we are grateful for a third-party resource like NewsGuard to validate our commitment to solid journalism practices and reporting the truth to the communities we serve,” said Francis Wick, CEO of Wick Communications.

One other new addition to the Wick family of community journalists, the Madison (S.D.) Daily Leader (https://www.dailyleaderextra.com), was not included in the designation because the evaluation of Wick websites concluded just before the announcement of its acquisition