How North Dakota's COVID Outbreak Became Worst in US

State underestimated the dangers before cases surged
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 16, 2020 5:33 PM CST
ND COVID Outbreak Is 'Worst Health Disaster' in State's History
In this April 10, 2020, file photo, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks at the state Capitol in Bismarck, ND.   (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

With coronavirus cases surging in almost every state, North Dakota ranks first in coronavirus cases and deaths per capita—and has for most of the last two months. Experts tell the Pioneer Press that the state's COVID outbreak became the worst in the nation after initial success controlling the virus led to complacency, with residents feeling a false sense of security and underestimating the danger after not experiencing the spring rise in cases seen in other states. But infections started to rise in late July, and contact tracers said many exposed or infected people they spoke to refused to self-quarantine. By late October, with large numbers of new cases being reported every day, state health authorities were so overwhelmed that they had to abandon contact tracing efforts.

Despite the steep rises in cases, Gov. Doug Burgum resisted issuing a statewide mask mandate until Friday. He also ordered limits on the size of gatherings. With hospitals overwhelmed, Burgum is allowing infected but asymptomatic health workers to treat COVID-19 patients, the AP reports. Dr. Stephen McDonough, a former senior official at the North Dakota Department of Health, tells the Pioneer Press that the outbreak is the "greatest public health disaster in the state’s 131-year history." He says that it has been "way beyond amateur hour at the state Capitol," with four different people serving as the state's top health officer in recent months. He says that with hospitals at capacity, the worst is likely yet to come. "A tsunami of ill patients is coming," the doctor warns. (More coronavirus stories.)

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