Gov. Doug Burgum and First Lady Kathryn Burgum today welcomed the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, to North Dakota to discuss the state’s efforts to save lives and livelihoods in the fight against COVID-19.
Birx, an ambassador-at-large and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy, met with the governor and first lady and held a roundtable discussion with state and local officials at the North Dakota State University Alumni Center in Fargo.
“Dr. Birx is a familiar face to Americans because of her steadfast role in helping guide our country through this pandemic. She’s been an essential leader in the U.S. response, and she’s, I can say personally, a highly valued partner in North Dakota’s fight against the coronavirus,” Burgum said at a press conference after the meeting, noting this was the 22nd state Birx has visited in the last several weeks. “We’re grateful that this leg of the tour has brought her to North Dakota at a critical juncture in our state’s fight.”
Birx praised the state’s COVID-19 response and the North Dakota Department of Health (NDDoH) dashboard at www.health.nd.gov/covid19dashboard, which provides COVID-19 information ranging from active cases and positive test rates to county-level data, saying, “North Dakota has one of the best dashboards of all states.”
“North Dakota has done an excellent job. You can see it in the data. The leadership that we have here has always translated data into action,” Birx said at the press conference, highlighting the state’s Vulnerable Population Protection Plan (VP3) that has prevented spread of the virus in long-term care facilities. “The way that North Dakota expanded that out of the nursing homes into assisted living, into other areas of congregate living, into areas where people were together in large numbers and had to have really specific mitigation – that, combined with testing and isolation in those areas, was highly impactful.”
Birx also complimented the state’s robust testing capacity, which has expanded in recent weeks to include back-to-school testing for colleges and universities.
“Not only do they have that capacity, they’ve used that capacity for good, and they’ve used it to really protect those that are most vulnerable among us,” she said.
While noting North Dakota is still a “green” state with a positive test rate of under 5%, Birx cautioned that the state’s recent increase in active cases and the positive test rate could lead to an increase in hospitalizations and fatalities if action isn’t taken now to isolate and slow the spread of the virus. The state currently has 65 people hospitalized for COVID-19 and the nation’s fifth-lowest case fatality rate.
Birx urged North Dakotans to practice social distancing, wash their hands, avoid large gatherings and wear masks where social distancing isn’t possible, noting those mitigation measures, combined with restrictions on indoor dining capacity and bars, have helped to reduce cases dramatically in southern states that saw outbreaks earlier this summer. Masks are especially important heading into the fall and flu season, she said.
“They’re very critical right now in this area,” she said. “It’s important for us to wear masks to protect each other.”
Burgum echoed the call to action, saying slowing the spread of the virus by following the ND Smart Restart guidelines is essential if North Dakotans want schools and businesses to remain open and activities such as sporting events to continue.
“Masks aren’t a limit on our freedom, they’re our path toward freedom,” he said.
Citing recent data that found 56 percent of North Dakotans who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic at the time of the test, the governor urged students to get tested so they know their status and can help slow the spread. Roughly 8,000 of the nearly 40,000 students in the North Dakota University System, or 20 percent, have been tested in the past few weeks, with over 500 positive cases identified.
In addition to Birx, the governor and first lady, those in attendance for today’s roundtable discussion were Governor’s Office Chief Operating Officer Tammy Miller and North Dakota National Guard Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, who co-lead the state’s COVID-19 Unified Command; Irum Zaidi, Birx’s chief epidemiologist; North Dakota Department of Health Disease Control Director Kirby Kruger; Department of Human Services Director Chris Jones; state House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman and House Minority Leader Josh Boschee; mayors Steve Bakken of Bismarck, Brandon Bochenski of Grand Forks and Tim Mahoney of Fargo; Essentia Health West Market President Dr. Bill Heegaard; Sanford Health Vice President/Medical Officer Dr. Doug Griffin; Jon Riewer, president of Eventide Senior Living Communities; Southwestern District Health Unit Director Sherry Adams; and North Dakota State University Professor of Practice Dr. Paul Carson.