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North Dakota scrambles to speed up virus test notifications

BISMARCK (AP) — Coronavirus cases are rising so fast in North Dakota that it’s taking officials up to three days to notify people after they test positive, and as a result the state has fallen behind on tracing their close contacts who might have been exposed.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and the North Dakota Department of Health announced late Tuesday that they’re shifting 50 National Guard members who had been working in contract tracing to simply notifying people who test positive. Public health officials will no longer notify close contacts of people who tested positive; instead those individuals will be instructed to notify their close contacts themselves and direct those people to the department’s website.

The Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee on Wednesday voted to recommend lawmakers wear masks and be tested twice a week after they return for the legislative session that begins in January. Members of the public, lobbyists and reporters also would be required to wear masks “in all areas” controlled by the Legislature at the Capitol, including committee rooms and chambers.

The action by the 10-member committee, which consists of Senate and House floor leaders, now goes to a broader panel of lawmakers next month for final approval.

“We got members in Legislature who have compromised health,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who heads the committee. “And we need to protect them.”

Wardner said he expects some pushback from the more conservative members of his own party.

“There will be some resistance,” Wardner told The Associated Press.

Wardner, a no-nonsense former high school coach and teacher, said he was prepared to deal with that.

“I’m not ready to say what I’d do yet,” he said.

North Dakota, with its loose regulations, has the country’s worst per-capita spread rate, with 1,224 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The state’s worsening numbers have prompted sharp questions over how Burgum has handled the virus. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney has called for a mask mandate statewide.

State health officials confirmed 516 new virus cases on Wednesday and a positivity rate of 8.35%, following a record day of 1,036 infections and a positivity rate of 19.68%. There were 10 new deaths since Tuesday, increasing the death toll to 422 since the pandemic began.

While the state added 400 contact tracers and case investigators over the summer, it has now built up a backlog of positive cases that have yet to be assigned. As a result, the department said, the time it takes to notify a positive case has increased from 24 hours to about 72 hours from when a lab confirms the result.

On top of that, the department said, significant community spread and a lack of cooperation with quarantines have diminished the effectiveness of contact tracing.

“This temporary situation required an immediate and significant shift in resources to provide results in a timely manner to individuals who test positive to protect their health and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Burgum said in a statement.

The state plans to develop a process for delivering automated notifications to positive individuals. Its system now delivers them only to people who test negative. Positive patients will still receive a follow-up call from a case investigator.

Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke said speeding up the notification process will help officials better identify potential clusters and allow patients to more quickly seek treatment and notify other individuals who may have been exposed.