covid cases 3-20-20

Graphic showing seven new COVID-19 cases, bringing the state's total to 26, as of Friday, March 20.

North Dakota is picking up 1,000 more testing swabs from South Dakota, and has received word from the federal government that 4,000 more testing swabs are on the way.

While that does not quite take the state “out of the woods,” spokeswoman Katie Haarsager told the Williston Herald, it does help.

“As of March 19, the private sector indicated they had around a two to seven-day supply of tests,” Haarsager added.

Private entities are also working to bring in assistance for running more tests across the state.

State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte said the FDA is working to provide additional flexibility with alternative testing methods, too, which will help ease testing constraints.

That news came just after the North Dakota Health Department sent out guidelines to health agencies for prioritizing testing for COVID-19 or coronavirus. Molly Howell, Immunization Program Manager at North Dakota Department of Health, said decisions about that are actually being based on the status of local supplies.

“At the state right now we do have the reagents to do the testing and we are keeping up,” she said.

Local areas with shortages of swabs can prioritize testing to patients who are hospitalized, those in congregate settings like long term care facilities, health care workers, and people identified as close contacts with a COVID-19 case who are also ill.

North Dakota identified seven more cases of COVID-19 on Friday, Gov. Doug Burgum said, including at least one more that was community spread, meaning a source of the infection could not be determined.

That brings the total number of cases to 26 total, out of 938 total tested.

The new cases came from four counties: Two in Burleigh, three in Morton, one in Ramsey and one in Pearce, a rural county in central North Dakota.

Another person is now also hospitalized due to COVID-19, bringing the number of serious cases to two.

Burgum said the new case in a rural county illustrates the point he has been making that COVID-19 is not just happening in distant metropolitan locations. It can happen anywhere that citizens fail to maintain social distancing and other recommendations that public health officials have been making.

“In a world where there is no vaccine, the best way for us to approach this is to slow the rate of transmission,” Burgum said. “While we cannot change the nature and character of the virus in terms of how contagious it is, we can change our own behavior to reduce the likelihood of transmission. When we reduce the likelihood of transmission, as we have been saying, when we flatten the curve, we have the opportunity to stay below what our line of capacity is for medical services.”

Burgum renewed calls to maintain social distance of at least 6 feet, to wash hands frequently, and to stay home if sick.

He said the state will continue to work on the problem from two fronts. One, reducing the spread of COVID-19, which will help keep the demand within what the state’s health care sector can supply, and two, increasing what the state can supply in the way of health care capacity.

The state has 286 ventilators on hand now, and is pursuing retrofitting ventilators used for other purposes such as elective surgeries. Federally, there are also efforts to ramp up production of ventilators and locate additional ventilators.

As far as bed space, the Army Corps of Engineers is now working with the state to identify locations for temporary hospital spaces in the event they are needed. This might include converting a dormitory to hospital beds, or converting a critical access hospital to an all-COVID-19 facility.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has both funding and personnel and equipment to come and stand these up,” Burgum said.

As far as calls for more centralized decisions limiting the spread of COVID-19, Burgum said all options remain on the table.

“But we are going to continue to just make an appeal to everybody, for a state that prides itself on individual responsibility, and to people who want to have their freedoms,” he said. “Let’s, if we want to preserve our freedoms, let’s use it wisely. Let’s all make sure we are acting in the best interest of all North Dakotans and not just in a person’s own self-interest.”

Burgum also announced another series of executive orders during the press conference Friday afternoon.

Among these is one expanding recognition of licensing requirements from other states to fields like radiology and medical imagery, and expanding the medical services that can use telehealth. Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread is also looking at rules on the health insurance side that might prevent using telehealth, such as what can be reimbursed through insurance.

“We have the technology to deliver health care and behavioral health care remotely and we should use it,” Burgum said. “Perhaps we should use it all the time. This executive order will speed our ability to do that.”

Another executive order reduced administrative requirements for unemployment claims. Burgum said claims have jumped from 80 per day about a week ago to this week 600 claims, and then 1,600 claims on Thursday.

“Imagine a team facing 80 claims per day and now facing 1,600 and growing,” Burgum said. “We are trying to reduce the administrative burden to process these and get checks out to people faster.”

The order will apply to all businesses, he added. Not just those who have been affected by his executive orders.

Burgum added that the state has an extra responsibility right now to help businesses, since it is calling for them to change business models, or, in some cases, even to close.

Burgum said he is confident there will be enough funds in the state’s unemployment insurance fund to pay benefits, particularly given federal actions, which include allowing states to borrow funds at zero interest for that purpose.

Burgum also signed an executive order directing all state agencies to identify provisions of law that might hinder the state in any way from delivering essential services to citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. That order extends to elected officials, as well as the general public.

Citizens can submit their ideas to gov@nd.gov.

State agencies have also been directed to recognize North Dakota drivers licenses, motor vehicle registration, and voting registration as valid, even if they have recently expired until the crisis ends.

Burgum added that rest area facilities in the state, which had been closed, are being re-opened beginning Monday, following deep cleaning and other issues. Vandalism occurred at some locations, where individuals had apparently tried to steal toilet paper.

“We are going to add additional custodial and janitorial services, to make sure they have regular cleaning,” Burgum said. “People should still practice their own hand hygiene when in contact with public buildings.”

Parking lots did remain open at rest area to allow overnight truckers a place to safely rest.

Burgum also took a moment to quell a persistent rumor on Facebook that the National Guard was being mobilized by the President in every state. That is untrue, Burgum said. National Guards will remain under the command of each state’s governor.

“They are a key part of emergency response,” Burgum said. “But they remain under the direction of each state’s governor.”

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