North Dakota will resume tracking contacts as the number of COVID-19 cases decreases

The return of the fundamental strategy to fight the disease comes more than two months after the state was overwhelmed by virus cases and abandoned most efforts to track contacts. The State Department of Health and local public health units in Fargo and Grand Forks have since asked residents who tested positive for COVID-19 to inform their own close contacts about the diagnosis.

The rate of new virus cases in North Dakota has dropped significantly from a peak in mid-November, making the task of detecting contacts “easier to manage,” said state epidemiologist Brenton Nesemeier. Health official Fargo said he expects the state to complete a plan to restart operations in the next few days.

Once again, case investigators will start contacting close contacts of positive cases to ask them to be quarantined and to look for virus testing. Efforts to track narrowly concentrated contacts in schools, colleges and medical institutions never stop and will continue to work.

Tracking contacts will also be more effective now, with fewer cases to investigate, Nesemeier said. The outbreak of infections in October and November made contact tracking efforts less useful because the virus was so widespread.

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Before stopping most operations, contact locators had some issues with residents refusing to follow quarantine instructions, leading to more infections in their communities.

Nesemeier said it was imperative that those contacted by the followers be isolated so that the state does not see a recurrence of the virus. He added that staying in quarantine could be easier for some residents now, as future holidays mean many are at home anyway. The US Centers for Disease Control has also reduced the suggested quarantine period for close contacts from 14 days to 7-10 days, making it easier for working people to follow guidelines.

The Department of Health on Monday, December 21, announced the lowest number of new cases of COVID-19 of any day since September 8.

The department reported only 78 new cases on Monday, including:

  • 19 of Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck. The county has 365 active cases.
  • 16 of Cass County, which includes Fargo. The county has 562 active cases.

Approximately 4.8% of the 1,619 residents tested as part of the last batch received a positive result, and an average of 6% of those tested in the last two weeks obtained a positive result. The state has not yet reported how many residents tested negative for rapid antigen testing, although eight of Monday’s positives came from the new 15-minute tests.

Department spokeswoman Nicole Peske said test demand was down, and the weekend contributed to low test numbers, leading to the small number of new positives reported Monday. Health experts continue to encourage those with COVID-19 symptoms or potential exposure to the virus to look for tests.

Two virus-related deaths reported Monday came from a 70-year-old woman in Burleigh County and a man from Ward County in the 1970s.

The department says 1,233 North Dakotans have succumbed to the disease since March. The state estimates an average of about nine deaths a day in December, a drop from November, when an average of more than 16 North Dakotans died each day.

At least 750 of the state’s deaths came to nursing homes and other long-term care institutions. There are 82 residents of infected nursing homes in the state, down by more than 300 since the beginning of the month.

In the last month and a half, active cases of COVID-19 have steadily fallen from over 10,000 on 12 November. It is now known that 2,655 North Dakotans are infected with the virus. COVID-19 hospitalizations have also declined in recent weeks and now stand at 158.

State hospitals are still struggling with staff, and beds available for intensive care are scarce. Health experts believe that the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations will alleviate some of the problems related to hospital staff, as more doctors and nurses gain immunity to the virus.

Public health officials have asked North Dakotans to refrain from traveling and large gatherings for the Christmas and New Year festivities. The state has not seen a big increase in cases since Thanksgiving, and experts hope to avoid a coup in January.

CS Hagen reporter contributed to this report.

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