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Burgum raises virus risk levels in several counties

BISMARCK (AP) — Gov. Doug Burgum on Thursday raised the coronavirus risk levels in several North Dakota counties, but issued no new restrictions, as the state’s number of active COVID-19 cases continued to grow and its rate of positive tests rose to the highest in the nation.

Burgum moved eight counties from low-risk to moderate under the state’s plan to set coronavirus management protocols, saying the move is necessary to reverse the state’s current direction. The guidance for moderate-risk counties includes cutting capacity in bars and restaurants from 75% to 50%, and reducing the number of people allowed at large gatherings.

“We really want to raise awareness that an elevated risk level does exist,” Burgum said.

Burgum formed task forces to tackle virus hot spots earlier this summer in the state’s most populous areas of Fargo and Bismarck. But he has avoided statewide mandates such as mask-wearing, instead stressing a personal responsibility message. He said again Thursday that the guidelines are to be used by local leaders “as a baseline for their own policies.”

Burgum raised the alert level for Barnes, Benson, Burleigh, Grand Forks, McLean, Morton, Stark and Williams counties to the moderate level. Meanwhile, he lowered risk levels for 13 mostly rural counties that have few or no active cases at present: Billings, Cavalier, Divide, Foster, Griggs, LaMoure, Mercer, McIntosh, Nelson, Renville, Traill, Walsh and Wells.

“This doesn’t mean you should become complacent,” Burgum said of residents in those counties.

The new risk levels take effect Friday afternoon, ahead of the extended Labor Day weekend.

The state Health Department reported 360 new cases Thursday, with 67 people in hospitals, up one from a day earlier. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the state’s rolling 14-day average for positive tests is just 20.05, and as of Wednesday the state was leading the nation in new cases per capita.

The Johns Hopkins data show Stark, Golden Valley and Grand Forks counties rank among the top 30 in the nation for the most new cases per capita in the past two weeks.

Burgum has criticized the findings, saying they don’t take into account North Dakota’s rate of testing, which is as much as 10 times higher than in other states. He said the state could lower its per capita positive case count “simply by doing less testing.”

“That is certainly not our strategy here in North Dakota,” he said.

The state also confirmed two more deaths Thursday, bringing the statewide death toll to 150 since the pandemic began. The victims were a woman who was over 100 from Williams County, and a man in his 60s from Burleigh County. Both had underlying health conditions.

Burgum also announced the appointment of a new interim state health officer, Dr. Paul Mariani, the associate chief of staff for education at the Fargo VA Health Care System, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mariani replaces Dr. Andrew Stahl, who resigned last month.