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Active cases of COVID-19 in the Bismarck region and North Dakota as a whole are continuing to fall, a trend that health experts attribute largely to more people masking up.
Separately, the state on Monday reported the first death of a prison inmate with COVID-19.
Active cases in Burleigh and Morton counties fell for the 15th straight day on Monday, though the region saw its 200th coronavirus-related death.
The state Department of Health reported 875 active cases in the two counties, down 57% from the recent high point on Nov. 22. It had been two months since active cases in Burleigh-Morton were last below 900.
Active cases statewide also have steadily declined in recent weeks — from 10,244 on Nov. 22 to 4,758 on Monday — a drop of 54%.
Theories on decline
Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease specialist at North Dakota State University, said he believes the decline in cases statewide is due to more North Dakotans heeding public health recommendations to wear masks, stay 6 feet apart and limit large gatherings. Gov. Doug Burgum in mid-November approved measures including a mask mandate and capacity restrictions on businesses.
“I’m not sure if that greater acceptance is due to the mandates and policy measures put in place by the governor, or whether it is because enough of us have experienced personal loss and suffering in our families that we finally understand their necessity,” Carson said. “Either way, I’m very glad to see our numbers all going the right direction.”
Carson pointed to data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Institute data sourced through the University of Maryland Social Data Science Center indicates mask usage increased from about one-fourth of North Dakota residents last spring to about one-third by early November and then to slightly more than half by mid-November.
Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch correlates drops in active cases and also positivity rates with the statewide mask mandate.
“We’ve seen greater compliance with mask use in Burleigh County since the governor announced this statewide mandate, and our numbers reflect that it’s working,” she said. “This in addition to other public health mitigation measures such as avoiding large gatherings and reducing capacity can be attributed to the decline in our positivity rates.”
Department of Health Epidemiologist Grace Njau believes public health education, easy availability of state coronavirus data, and local mask mandates around North Dakota that took effect in the lead-up to the state mandate also have had an impact.
“I would also add that the surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths — and the added stress of our health care workers and systems — may have been a wake-up call for individuals who may not have been taking COVID, and masking, seriously,” Njau said.
More daily data
North Dakota health officials on Monday reported 365 new cases of COVID-19, out of 4,824 tests handled Sunday. The amount of testing typically drops over the weekend.
The department reported nine new deaths, including that of a Morton County man in his 90s. It was the 71st death of a Morton resident with COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March. There have been 129 such deaths in Burleigh, and 1,022 statewide.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations in North Dakota dropped by one, to 304. Hospitals in the state had 27 staffed intensive care unit beds and 285 non-ICU beds available, according to the most recent state data. In Bismarck, Sanford Health and CHI St. Alexius Health each had one staffed ICU bed open. Sanford had two staffed non-ICU beds and CHI St. Alexius had 13.
“Notably, we still have over 300 individuals currently hospitalized, and as of (Sunday) 1,019 North Dakotans had lost their lives,” Njau said. “I’m optimistic about our new and active cases trajectory, but cautiously so. Especially with some of the gatherings and travel that may have happened over Thanksgiving.”
The number of state residents tested for coronavirus at least once is at 358,279 and total tests number 1,196,950. There have been 83,342 cases confirmed in North Dakota during the pandemic, 77,562 recoveries and 2,896 hospitalizations.
Prison system death
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Monday reported the death of a male inmate in his 60s with COVID-19. The inmate at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown tested positive on Nov. 16, was admitted to a Bismarck hospital on Nov. 25 and died on Friday.
It’s the first coronavirus-related death of a person in state custody. The department did not release the man’s name, citing privacy.
The state prison system has about 1,400 inmates. As of Friday, there were 37 active cases among inmates and 24 active cases among Corrections staff. More information is available at https://www.docr.nd.gov/covid-19-information.
A statewide mask mandate is in effect, along with enforced capacity restrictions for bars, restaurants, and various event venues. Violations could be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. Repeat violations could lead to a fine up to $1,500 and 30 days in jail. For more information, go to www.bit.ly/38NiT4r and www.bit.ly/3kDdVtb.