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North Dakota National Guard Sgt. Dominic Kessel, left, and Jodie Fetsch, Custer Health director of nursing, work with COVID-19 tests on July 22 at Custer Health in Mandan.

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State and local officials are forming a task force to address the development of Burleigh and Morton counties into a coronavirus hot spot, Gov. Doug Burgum announced Tuesday.

The task force will be modeled after one created in early May in the Red River Valley after Cass County and Fargo bloomed into a hot spot. Cass has nearly half of the total cases in North Dakota and three-fourths of the coronavirus-related deaths, but the outbreak there has lessened in recent weeks -- active cases on Tuesday numbered 148, about half of Burleigh County's total.

"The goal of that task force when it was created was to get Cass County below the state average" positivity rate, Burgum said during a public briefing. "That's been accomplished, but at the same time we've seen Burleigh-Morton -- which for a long time back was way below the state average -- got above it, then it tracked evenly with Cass County for a period of time in terms of positivity rate, and then now in the last few weeks has shot ahead."

The situation in Cass County was complicated by its nearness to Minnesota, where cases also were high, and by outbreaks in long-term care facilities. Nursing home cases are on the rise again statewide, and in Bismarck-Mandan they total 31 in six facilities.

Cases overall in Burleigh-Morton have tripled this month. The two counties together have one-third of the state's total active cases.

"We're particularly concerned about what we're seeing in Burleigh-Morton," Burgum said, adding later that "we want to make sure that we're keeping a handle on it."

Task force

The task force "will strengthen what's already quite strong coordination between a number of players," Burgum said.

They include local public health and government officials, local hospitals and long-term care providers, K-12 and higher education officials, and representatives of large employers in the area including state government and the state corrections system.

The goal is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through measures including education, testing and contact tracing, and support for people in isolation or quarantine.

“We’ve got a great game plan to follow, one that worked in our collaboration between Cass and Clay (Minnesota) counties,” Burgum said. Some people who were on that task force will take part in the new effort, he said without specifying. He also said the state was reaching out to "a number of leaders."

The state will support the task force through such means as supplying personnel and equipment for mass testing, as it is doing already, Burgum said. It wasn't immediately known if the state would specifically designate to the task force some of the $1.25 billion it has received in federal CARES Act coronavirus relief aid -- some of which already has gone to areas such as public health.

"We'll have to do an assessment first, get the task force formed, understand where the gaps are," Burgum said.

For more information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to health.nd.gov/coronavirus.


Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

This article originally ran on bismarcktribune.com.

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