Williams and McKenzie counties are among 16 counties moving from the moderate risk yellow zone to the high-risk orange zone, a switch that Gov. Doug Burgum said is due to a continued rise in COVID-19 cases.
“We are caught in the middle of a COVID storm,” Burgum said, referring to the state’s recent average of seven deaths per day in October, which he said will lead to 504 deaths of North Dakotans with COVID by Christmas, if the trend line doesn’t change.
“Each of us has it in our power to help change that trajectory through our actions and through our leadership,” he said. “We can help change that for others.”
Fifty percent of North Dakota’s long-term care facilities now have positive cases in health care workers, Burgum said, the highest in the nation right now in terms of active cases in nursing homes, where many of the state’s most vulnerable reside.
Positive cases in nursing home residents track back to health care workers, but their exposure tracks back to the community itself, Burgum said.
“Again, the mitigation strategies are clear,” Burgum said. “There’s not a mystery. What we’ve been talking about since the beginning works.”
Those steps include social distancing of at least 6 feet between one’s self and others, masks when social distancing is impossible, washing hands frequently or after touching frequent contact surfaces, and staying home when sick.
“All of these things work,” Burgum said. “We do not need new mitigation strategies. We just need to execute on the strategies that we already know work.”
Burgum called on citizens in all communities moving up in risk level to become leaders for the cause of fighting the pandemic, but most particularly businesses.
“There is no reason whatsoever why businesses shouldn’t be requiring and offering and supporting their employees to wear masks at this time, particularly in counties where we have higher risk levels,” Burgum said.
Burgum announced the new risk level for Williams and Mckenzie County at the same time that he announced changes to recommendations for the state’s various color-coded risk levels, which he said are based on new information about the effectiveness of masks.
An increasing number of studies are showing that masks do help prevent transmission of COVID-19 when people cannot socially distance and are in a tight, enclosed space.
Among these, Burgum cited a study by Brown University that he said looked at more than 100,000 students for trends, and found that only 2 percent of students have been infected with COVID-19. Burgum suggested that is primarily because the students are wearing masks and following other CDC guidelines because they want to stay in school.
“Schools are not turning out to be the super spreader events that people thought they would be,” Burgum said, adding that this is “fantastic” for both schools and the community, since schools deliver so many other health benefits to students, including nutrition and access to some mental health services.
The new recommendations that go with the orange and red levels will be posted and go into effect as of 5 p.m. Friday, Burgum said.
They emphasize mask use, particularly in personal care businesses for the orange risk zone, and they restrict the size of indoor gatherings to 25 percent of occupancy or a cap of no more than 50 people. This is much less than before.
Larger indoor and outdoor gatherings may still be permitted, if approved by community leaders and the local health authority. Community leaders may require event planners to submit a logistics and emergency operations plan to their local health authority no later than 30 days before the event.
While the old orange zone had some business closures, the new recommendations do not. Those won’t come into play until a county reaches the red zone.
The new recommendations are specific to large gatherings and businesses, and not to the instructional model in secondary schools.
The recommendations continue to be guidelines rather than requirements.
“We are asking,” Burgum said. “It is a recommendation, but it is an ask in the strongest way possible from myself personally and the state of North Dakota.”