Fargo leaders look to ‘test their way out’ of virus surge
FARGO (AP) — Officials said Thursday that they’ve identified several COVID-19 hot spots in and around Fargo, which is North Dakota’s biggest city and which has had more confirmed cases of the disease than any other community in the state.
With the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Fargo area continuing to dwarf the rates everywhere else in the state, Gov. Doug Burgum called on area officials to help slow the spread and promised resources to help with testing and other measures that he believes will keep people healthy and businesses open.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, a member of the newly created Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force, said some drive-thru testing efforts managed by the state were good in theory, but didn’t produce the results that should be attainable with direct testing.
“It’s better for us to be directing it. We can go to our hot spots, the sites where we think they are going to have more positive cases,” Mahoney said. “I think a big part of it will be testing our way out of this.”
Cass County, which includes Fargo and West Fargo, has posted an average positive rate of nearly 10% for the last 14 days, compared to the statewide rate of about 3%. All but eight of the state’s 31 COVID-19 deaths have been in Cass County, including five this week.
A major reason, according to Mahoney and Cass County Commission Chairman Chad Peterson, is Fargo’s position as a regional economic hub that leads thousands of people traveling in and out every day. Peterson cited a 2018 survey, meant to support the need for a Red River diversion project, showing that about 30,000 people commute to Fargo to work.
“It’s hard for a lot of people to understand,” Peterson said. “Cass County represents a unique situation when it comes to the diverse population and the amount of people traveling here from rural areas.”
The diversion study showed that about 50% of the people living in neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, cross the bridge over the Red River to work in Fargo. Combined, the counties where the two cities are located have recorded 931 positive COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths caused by the virus.
As the state’s most populous area, Fargo and Cass County have the largest population of people who are homeless, residing in various shelters or living in long-term care facilities where patients and staff make up the majority of positive cases in North Dakota and Minnesota. Those will be among the targeted testing areas.
Burgum’s decision to create a task force came less than a week after he decided to ease restrictions on a select group of businesses he had closed, such as bars, restaurants, beauty salons, health clubs and movie theaters. Peterson said he was conflicted about the reopenings, but not to the point where he thought it was a bad idea.
“Right now, we pretty much know where these people are,” Peterson said, referring to places for potential outbreaks. “If we get hundreds of people who are getting this at random where we don’t have the ability to trace them, that’s when we would rethink that.”
It was exactly a month ago when Mahoney issued a public scolding after witnessing a full-court pickup basketball game at a local park. He said he believes most people got the message and that he hasn’t seen as many social distancing violations in recent days, even with warmer weather.
Mahoney, Peterson and Fargo police spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker said many people are still taking a wait-and-see approach toward returning to their favorite establishments. Most complaints about people congregating have been unfounded, she said.
“Our department has responded to all calls for service regarding public safety concerns and looked into them,” she said. “Our goal is to educate people on the guidelines versus completing reports.”