National media who have been relying on the Covid Tracking Project are getting North Dakota’s story all wrong, Gov. Doug Burgum said during his weekly coronavirus update, and his team is working with that volunteer organization to correct the data issues.
Among the steps that will be taken, a new category will be added to the state’s statistical dashboard to sync up better with the COVID Tracking Project. But, the governor added, those who want accurate information should look to either health.nd.gov or the CDC for that information.
“These are places where we do know and can verify that the data is accurate,” Burgum said, adding that hundreds of people in the state are working “tirelessly” to do a critical job. Their efforts are driving a robust testing strategy that has put North Dakota at the No. 2 spot in the nation for tests per capita.
“Their work should never be diminished,” Burgum said. “And it should be reflected in any conversation about North Dakota’s status in this pandemic.”
Burgum said part of the error stemmed from not properly considering all the serial testing the state is doing, and using just a part of the overall testing to calculate rates. An accurate portrayal of the state’s rate must take into account the amount of testing that’s being done here, which is second only to New York on a per capita basis.
Around 212,000 unique individuals have been tested in North Dakota using PCR tests, Burgum said, but the state has done 538,000 tests in all. Health care workers and vulnerable populations in particular are being tested serially as part of a strategy to identify coronavirus cases in congregate living settings early, before they can spread among vulnerable populations.
“We are making an invisible enemy visible through all this work,” Burgum said, adding that North Dakota’s fatality rate is still among the lowest in the nation despite its rise in overall cases, and it’s hospitalizations also remain low at 63, 11 of whom are in an ICU unit.
That still leaves plenty of COVID-19 bed space available, Burgum added, though he acknowledged bed space for other procedures may be scarce right now because of the number of people who deferred procedures early in the pandemic.
All that said, however, Burgum acknowledged the state’s daily positivity rate is trending higher than he would like, and he reiterated the importance of individuals stepping up in businesses and communities to lead by example.
The recent rise in status to moderate risk levels for Williams and eight other counties remains in effect, Burgum said, and it is a signal that trends are moving in the wrong direction. Burgum also warned that he is looking at three more counties where positivity rates are a concern.
That group includes McKenzie County, whose rate has reached 5.79 percent, as well as Cass County at 4.91 percent and Stuttsman at 6.2 percent.
“If you’re in one of these yellow counties where you have got higher risk levels, you don’t have to wait to find out if the mayor or the city commission or the county commission is going to do something related to other ordinances or mask mandates etc.,” Burgum added. “You’ve got an opportunity to say ‘Hey, I care about my employees and I care about my business, and I care about my customers, and so we are going to make sure at least even all of our own team members in (our) own business are masked up.’”
The bottom lines for big boxes which have implemented mask policies have not suffered, Burgum added.
“They have mask mandates in place for their team and they offer masks when people come in,” Burgum said. “They’ve got high compliance and they’ve got strong revenues. We know that from sales tax revenue. We know you can operate a business and do this in a way where you don’t need a mandate, you just need to encourage people to do their part.”
In conversations with the governors of states that do have a mask mandate, Burgum said they’re asking how to get more people to comply with these rules. He doesn’t believe a mandate necessarily means better compliance.
Instead, he hopes individuals throughout the state will take up the cause building peer pressure that will encourage more leadership and personal responsibility in a way he believes could be more far-reaching than a top-down mandate.
The lack of a mandate is not to diminish the importance of masks. In fact, Burgum used the word mask no less than 43 times during his update.
He called them a really smart idea, particularly for businesses with a lot of contacts or with a lot of face-to-face interaction. They are the way North Dakotans can take control of the situation, to keep businesses and schools open during the pandemic.
Masks are a tool in use by the health care industry for decades, he added, and those who work in that sector know they are effective when it comes to slowing the spread of disease.
The way masks have been politicized is unfortunate, Burgum said, and suggested such debates are not productive.
“Someone wearing a mask is not at all treading on your individual rights,” he said. “And so I say if someone is wearing a mask they may be an essential worker, and, really, the only thing to say to them is thank you because they are doing their part to help slow the spread and that helps keep every business in North Dakota open. It helps keep all of our schools open. It helps keep our vulnerable population safe.”
As far as whether the state might return to lockdowns if cases continue to rise, Burgum said he has the executive authority to do that, but he also believes businesses that are doing a good job of practicing North Dakota smart guidelines should be able to remain open through the pandemic.
“If a business has an outbreak, we may need to work with them,” he said. “We don’t need a mandate for the whole state.”
North Dakota reported 1,873 new cases and close to 1,200 recoveries for the past week, bringing its active case count to 2,264. The new cases were out of 34,966 tests for a daily positivity rate of 5.4 percent.
There are currently 63 people hospitalized — less than the peak 70 — 19 of whom are in an intensive care unit. There were 11 more deaths.