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North Dakota health official quits amid quarantine dispute

BISMARCK (AP) — Dr. Paul Mariani resigned as North Dakota’s top state health officer on Friday, one day after Gov. Doug Burgum reversed himself and rescinded a new order that would have enforced quarantines for close contacts of coronavirus patients.

The announcement from Burgum’s office included a comment from Mariani that the way the new order was dropped made it impossible for him to continue as interim state health officer. He became the third person to resign the position since May. The upheaval comes as North Dakota battles one of the nation’s highest per-capita rates of spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Republican governor had described Mariani’s expanded order Wednesday as bringing the state in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in a statement late Thursday announcing that the order was rescinded, Burgum said the state needs a “light touch” from government in managing the virus. On Friday, he said he and Mariani agreed that the planned penalties for violations “became a large and unforeseen distraction.”

Mariani took over after Dr. Andrew Stahl stepped down as interim state health officer in late August to join a private practice. Burgum said at the time that Stahl resigned due to family, financial and career considerations, not because of any disagreements with the administration. Stahl took over in late May for Mylynn Tufte, who resigned without explanation.

“While the governor and I agreed on the urgent need to isolate positives and quarantine close contacts in accordance with CDC guidelines, and that the amended order’s penalty provision was overly punitive, the circumstances around the handling of the order made my position untenable,” Mariani said in Friday’s announcement.

North Dakota has seen the nation’s highest number of new confirmed cases per capita over the last two weeks with 659 new cases per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by nearly 131 in that time, an increase of 50%.

The Department of Health reported 436 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, along with eight deaths. The number of active infections also reached an all-time high at 3,562.

The expanded order from Mariani would have required people who spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone with the virus to quarantine for 14 days or face a misdemeanor charge. It expanded on a previous order signed in April by Tufte that applied to people who live in the same household of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The Department of Health said no one has faced charges as a result of the order. But Burgum said he received “a firestorm of reaction” after Wednesday’s announcement and called the expanded order a “miscalculation.”

When Burgum explained the expanded order Wednesday, he said that as many as a third of close contacts have tested positive for the virus. But it appears he plans to rely on voluntary compliance with CDC recommendations. He said will work with local communities to find ways to encourage quarantining.

“Our goal is compliance,” Burgum said late Thursday. “In order to get compliance, we have to get public support.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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