North Dakota rolls out free rapid testing for K-12 school staff in pilot project to slow COVID-19 spread
The North Dakota Department of Health, with support from local public health and the North Dakota National Guard, rolled out free rapid testing for K-12 teachers, staff and administrators in late November as part of a pilot project to identify asymptomatic COVID-19 cases so they can quickly isolate and prevent further spread of the virus.
Testing of K-12 teachers, staff and administrators began in the Fargo, West Fargo and Dickinson school districts. Testing is highly recommended in order to proactively isolate positive cases and keep educational spaces safe for students and staff. Staff members who work closely with students are strongly encouraged to participate weekly. Testing is limited to K-12 personnel; students will not be tested.
The plan is to test teachers, staff and administrators weekly until Dec. 31, 2020.
“These rapid tests are a new tool in the toolbox that will help us break the chain of transmission by helping to identify the silent epidemic of COVID-positive individuals unknowingly spreading the virus,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, the state’s chief health strategist and dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences.
“Deploying these rapid tests to K-12 school districts will help to quickly identify and isolate asymptomatic carriers and prevent further spread of the virus to bend the curve in the right direction, while helping schools remain open or return to in-person learning,” said Gov. Doug Burgum, who met three times with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including twice with CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield as the rapid testing strategy was developed. “Conducting this testing before and after Thanksgiving will also provide insights and help us fine-tune our strategy for reducing community spread, thereby protecting our health care capacity.”
Severe Winter Weather: How vulnerable are we?
Zeina Abouelazm, a student at North Dakota State University, authored this month's edition of "Mitigation Matters." Zeina is pursuing a double major in communication and emergency management and interned with NDDES over the summer. During her internship, Zeina worked on several projects with the agency's Planning Section, including developing a risk assessment tracker to use by the State Hazard Mitigation Team. She also has assisted with the state's COVID-19 response by working with state agencies and non-profit organizations to explore ways in which to reach immigrant communities to provide emergency information during the pandemic.
As winter approaches, the residents of North Dakota are often prepared to bundle, layer up and enjoy indoor activities.
Typically, the length of North Dakota’s winter weather spans for about 6 months, from mid-November until early April. Severe winter weather is something we experience every year, leading some to think we are accustomed and less vulnerable to it. But we must always be prepared. In fact, in the State Hazard Mitigation Team ranked severe winter weather as the state’s third most concerning hazard, with cyber security and flooding as first and second respectively. North Dakota’s wide range of diverse communities and individuals remain vulnerable to such hazard.
Some of the impacts that accompany sever winter weather include hypothermia, road accidents, seasonal depression, etc. However, certain groups experience higher rates of vulnerability due to various physical, social and economic reasons.
Two especially vulnerable groups in the state, which make up a large portion of the population, are immigrant communities and homeless individuals:
- An estimated 50,000 immigrant individuals live in the State of North Dakota, according to the Immigrant and Immigrant Community Outreach and Support Strategy, which was developed June 26, 2020, between NDDES and the N.D. Department of Health. Such groups are extremely vulnerable to severe winter weather since many of these individuals come from warmer countries and locations. This leads to a lack of knowledge and a sense of unfamiliarity with North Dakota’s winters. Moreover, immigrant communities often lack knowledge about the correct preparedness measures that should be taken for severe winter weather, i.e. suitable clothing and car kits. Such lack of knowledge is often multiplied by other difficulties, including linguistic barriers, unlikeliness to ask for help and economic barriers.
- Similarly, according to the State of North Dakota Enhanced Mitigation Mission Area Operations Plan (Enhanced Mitigation MAOP), homeless individuals are especially vulnerable to severe winter weather due to the lack of open emergency shelters during winter days. With no place to go and a lack of finances, the homeless population suffers from exhaustion, increased health concerns (physical and mental), as well as the lack of security of not knowing what will happen next as the weather can change in a matter of hours.
According to the State of North Dakota Enhanced Mitigation Mission Area Operations Plan (Enhanced Mitigation MAOP), North Dakotans are predicted to see an increase in severity and intensity to severe winter weather events in the coming years. Keeping that in mind, no matter how familiar you are to such hazards, always be thinking “how safe is my neighbor, friend, family member, loved one or coworker?”
Burgum announces new requirements for businesses, gatherings and masks, delays winter activities to slow spread of COVID-19
Gov. Doug Burgum announced several mitigation measures aimed at slowing the accelerating spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota Nov. 13 in order to protect the vulnerable, ensure hospital capacity and keep schools and the economy open.
Capacity is strained across the state’s health care system, jeopardizing the ability of hospitals to provide the first-rate treatment North Dakotans are accustomed to – not only for COVID-19 patients, but also for those seeking care for heart attacks, cancer, trauma and other urgent needs, Burgum noted.
“Our doctors and nurses heroically working on the front lines need our help, and they need it now. Since the beginning, we’ve taken a data-driven approach to our pandemic response, focusing on saving lives and livelihoods. Right now, the data demands a higher level of mitigation efforts to reverse these dangerous trends, to slow the spread of this virus and to avoid the need for economic shutdowns,” Burgum said in a video message announcing the measures. “Our situation has changed, and we must change with it. Tonight, we’re announcing four measures designed to reduce the spread of infections in our communities to protect our most vulnerable and to ensure hospital capacity.”
The measures include a State Health Officer order requiring face coverings to be worn in indoor businesses and indoor public settings as well as outdoor public settings where physical distancing isn’t possible. The order, signed by interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke, is effective from Nov. 14 through Dec. 13. It includes exceptions for children under age 5, individuals with a medical or mental health condition or disability that makes it unreasonable to wear a mask, and religious services.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in November that “adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns,” and that masks protect not only the people around the individual wearing the mask but also the mask wearer.
“The most effective weapon against COVID-19 is wearing a mask,” Wilke said. “This is a simple tool, but one that’s critical in helping protect our loved ones and slow the spread.”
Burgum signed an executive order to implement other mitigation measures, which took effect Monday, Nov. 16. Winter sports practices and extracurricular activities in North Dakota were allowed to resume Nov. 30 with extra precautions, while competitions will remain suspended until Dec. 14.
North Dakota National Guard reaches milestone in covid-19 support
The North Dakota National Guard reached a new milestone in its domestic support operations this month when COVID-19 support exceeded the efforts of its 2011 state-wide flood support mission.
On Thursday, Nov. 19, the N.D. National Guard assessed 67,495 personnel-days, surpassing the record 67,264 personnel-days worked in response to 2011 flood. The COVID-19 support mission is now the largest and longest state mobilization in the history of the N.D. National Guard.
“The North Dakota National Guard has been instrumental in our whole-of-government response to this pandemic,” said Gov. Doug Burgum. “We are all deeply grateful for their incredible commitment and tireless efforts to save lives and livelihoods and protect our most vulnerable citizens from this unprecedented threat to public health.”
The North Dakota National Guard saw their first activation on March 16 and has conducted support operations for 248 consecutive days. The 2011 flood response saw Guard members on duty for 142 days. Today, about 270 Soldiers and Airmen remain on COVID-19 duty.
“Our Soldiers, Airmen and civilian employees have performed exceptionally well during this emergency response in a multitude of tasks”, said Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, North Dakota adjutant general. “I am proud of their efforts in this battle to contain this virus in support of the citizens of North Dakota while continuing to conduct much of their normal duties, supporting our federal missions and maintaining readiness.”
North Dakota Guardsmen have supported, and will continue to support, the response to this pandemic with a range of tasks. These include administering COVID-19 tests, strategic response planning and deep cleaning at long-term and congregate living facilities. N.D. National Guard members have also aided in the transportation of test specimens and provided other support to the state laboratory in Bismarck. In total, over 680 North Dakota Soldiers and Airmen have performed COVID-19 response duty.
Photo caption: Staff Sgt. Misty Poitra, in blue, and Senior Airman Chris Cornette, both of the 119th Medical Group, collect throat swabs during COVID-19 testing, as N.D. National Guard Soldiers gather test subject data in the parking lot of the FargoDome, Fargo, N.D., May 3, 2020.