Williams County will not be moving to the orange zone this week, despite its number of cases and a positivity rate above 10 percent, Gov. Doug Burgum said during his weekly media briefing.
That does not mean, however, that there is no urgency behind recommendations to mask up when social distancing is impossible, and to avoid large gatherings, Burgum added, and suggested he is holding off on raising the risk levels to orange until the guidelines that go with higher risk zones can be further revised.
New evidence is showing that masks are effective at cutting transmission of COVID-19 even for things like personal care businesses, the governor said. He wants the guidelines to reflect this information.
“If we have got new information and new data that tells us that that may not be where risks are,” Burgum said. “We want to do some adjustments, so there may be some things coming where we would be less restrictive on some activities if we have got appropriate masking. But we also believe that one of the ways we are seeing spread is with large group gatherings and so we want to again stress this.”
The recommendations will remain guidelines, however.
“(They are) a good place to look for how you could help slow the spread in your county,” he said.
Williams County’s positivity rate is 13.6%, according to the state’s most recent figures, and it has 253 active cases. Only three other counties have more active cases right now. Cass, Burleigh and Stark.
The rising number of cases here has prompted Williston and Williams County to form a coalition that will look at ways to get the numbers back down.
Among steps already taken, Williston Mayor Howard Klug has suspended permits for temporary liquor licenses and for special events, to discourage large gatherings.
Burgum praised those steps, describing them as “decisive,” but alone they are not enough. Burgum also urged that individual citizens in the communities step up as well.
“High school athletic events we know are showing up on contact tracing,” he said.
People who are in close contact, cheering and yelling without a mask are transmitting the disease.
“These are events we know you may not want to miss, but if you can go and stay apart from other people and wear a mask, then you can be a part of the solution because you are not going to either be a transmitter or a receiver,” Burgum said. “You are not going to give this virus a place to live.”
Other contact tracers have heard about transmissible moments at small family gatherings like weddings or funerals, where someone with symptoms was in attendance.
“It’s like even before the pandemic, if you are not feeling well, you should stay home. Even during flu season, stay home,” Burgum said. “If you are symptomatic and you’re coughing or sneezing or having the symptoms of COVID, you should A, get tested and B, you should isolate until you get your test results back.”
That is a simple thing to ask, Burgum added, which, by itself, would go a long way to preserving hospital space.
Space is something Dr. Michael Lebeau, president of the Bismarck region for Sanford Health, acknowledged is being challenged right now by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the two-month backlog of elective procedures that people put off at the beginning of the pandemic in March.
“We are at high capacity across our state,” LeBeau said, and it is a “significant challenge” for the state’s health care — regardless of what anyone might try to suggest on social media.
“For anyone not to say that (it is significant), they are fooling themselves, or at least, trying to fool you,” he said.
The strain on the system is forcing changes.
“You might wait longer in the ER department,” he said. “You may have a hallway bed. You might be in a waiting area to be admitted into a hospital or you may be transferred to another facility.”
Meanwhile, hospitals in the state are working to develop more care closer to home, which will ultimately improve capacity for the future.
“So we are going to emerge from this a better health care delivery system,” LeBeau said. “And it’s going to start in our rural hospitals. And a special shoutout to many of our hospitals that are stepping up and delivering more care at home.”
Testing more people, finding more positives early for appropriate intervention are key, LeBeau said, and must continue — particularly as the state approaches the annual influenza season.
“We need, as a society, to take care of ourselves,” he said.
That includes non-COVID care, like getting a flu shot. And it includes routine screenings for breast cancer and other illnesses.
“Rest assured, breast cancer doesn’t go away because of COVID,” he said.
LeBeau said mask-wearing and other CDC guidelines remain as important today as ever.
“Each time I go out, I see more masks. There is nobody in health care who would look at you and say anything but please, please wear masks for yourself, as well as your grandparents,” he said, adding, “We had our first teenager pass away from COVID. That’s heartbreaking. I got a chance to visit with the hospital staff. That’s a devastating event. That’s devastating for a family. I think it’s important for us to remember all of the things we can do to care for each other and to care for ourselves.”