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North Dakota

Executive order allows earlier ballot processing

BISMARCK – Gov. Doug Burgum signed an executive order Saturday, granting a request from county auditors to allow processing of absentee ballots to begin on Oct. 29, ensuring that election workers have adequate time to verify voter information and ensure election integrity and timely results on Election Day.
Existing state law only allows local election boards to process absentee and mail ballots beginning the day before and the day of Election Day. To avoid a significant delay in reporting election results after the polls close on Election Day, the North Dakota County Auditors Association requested additional time for local election boards to conduct the initial verification and securing of absentee and mail ballots.
The executive order gives absentee ballot counting boards more time to complete their duties as prescribed by law but does not alter the process that must be completed. Local election boards may not count votes or generate vote totals or election results until after the polls have closed on Election Day.
Donnell Preskey Hushka, executive director for the North Dakota County Auditors Association, said the additional processing time will allow counties to verify signatures and prepare ballots for processing through the election equipment.
“In June, we saw how this additional time helped counties tabulate results in a timely manner after the polls closed. Without this extension, and with the increased volume of absentee and mail ballots counties are expecting, results could be delayed not by hours but maybe even days,” Preskey Hushka said.
North Dakota counties preparing for the Nov. 3 general election are reporting record numbers of applications for absentee and mail ballots as well as record numbers of voters returning completed absentee and mail ballots.
To date, the Secretary of State reports more than 205,000 absentee and mail ballots for the 2020 general election have been sent out to eligible voters – a 100% increase over the 2018 general election and a 130% increase over the 2016 general election. North Dakota citizens cast a record 159,397 ballots by mail during the June primary election, which was conducted across the state with efficiency and integrity.

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North Dakota

North Dakota Guard helps notify 800 positive for COVID-19

BISMARCK (AP) — National Guard soldiers have helped to notify 800 people who tested positive for COVID-19 but initially weren’t told, officials said.
The notification backlog, which was due to a recent sharp increase in coronavirus cases, was resolved Thursday largely through shifting the role this week of 50 North Dakota National Guard soldiers, health officials said.
The soldiers had been informing people they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and should monitor their health for signs and symptoms of the virus. On Tuesday, health officials announced the soldiers would instead be notifying those who test positive for the virus.
The North Dakota Department of Health expects the change in contact tracing to be temporary. As part of the new process, public health officials will no longer reach out to close contacts of individuals who test positive for COVID-19. Instead, those testing positive will be instructed to self-notify their close contacts.
Contact tracing remains unchanged for health care settings, schools and universities.
Kirby Kruger, director of the state Department of Health’s Division of Disease Control, said last week that 400 health officials and contractors were able to contact more than 90 percent of those who test positive within 24 hours to begin contact tracing.
North Dakota reported 886 new infections on Friday, down from a record 1,038 new cases reported on Thursday.
The COVID Tracking Project reported that North Dakota has had more than 1,272 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, which leads the nation. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by more than 70% in the lasts two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Health officials also reported nine new deaths Friday, increasing the statewide death toll from the virus to 440 since the pandemic began.
Hospitalizations stood at a record 168 on Friday, up a dozen from Thursday. There were 232 available staffed inpatient beds plus 14 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota on Friday, according to state data.

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North Dakota

Sunflower farmers expect biggest crop in 5 years

BISMARCK (AP) — Sunflower farmers in the U.S. are expected to produce their biggest crop in five years, and North Dakota farmers are expecting their best yield in history.
The first sunflower production forecast for 2020 is 2.81 billion pounds, up 44% from 2019, according to the National Sunflower Association.
The Bismarck Tribune reports that both planted and harvested acres are expected to be up more than 25% from last year. The October yield forecast, at 1,730 pounds per acre, is 11% higher than last year and would be just a pound less than the record high average yield for the nation.
North Dakota leads the country in sunflower production. The state forecast is 1.23 billion pounds, up 64% from last year. The expected average yield of 1,761 pounds per acre would be a record, according to the association.
Higher yields are expected in five of the eight states in which sunflower production is tracked, according to the sunflower association. Increases are forecast for Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Decreases are expected in California, Minnesota and Texas.

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North Dakota

ND seeks to repurpose coronavirus aid for fracking

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota officials say they want to repurpose $16 million in federal coronavirus aid and spend it on grants to encourage fracking instead of using it to clean up abandoned oil well sites.
Regulators have presented the proposal as a way to create jobs and help stabilize state revenue, while some in the environmental community view it as a bailout for the oil industry, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Under the proposal, which the North Dakota Emergency Commission will consider Friday, oil companies would be eligible for a $200,000 reimbursement per well they complete. They could use the money for acquiring and disposing of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected underground to crack rock and release oil.
State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said oil companies have been hit hard by the price drop resulting from the pandemic, leading to slow work in the state’s oil fields.
The Sierra Club, however, called it “totally inappropriate” to put some of the $1.25 billion the state received under the coronavirus rescue package toward fracking.
“A direct subsidy payment to oil companies to drill for oil is outrageous,” said Wayde Schafer, spokesman for the organization in North Dakota.
Earlier this year, state leaders designated $66 million of the aid for plugging and cleaning up 380 abandoned well sites. Helms expects the state to finish plugging all 380 wells this year but only complete cleanup work at about half the sites. Repurposing the $16 million will keep 500 to 1,000 people employed through the end of the year, he said.
“There’s nothing inappropriate about using CARES Act money to create jobs in the oil service industry,” he said.

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North Dakota

ND posts new daily record for COVID-19 infections

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota remained as one of the worst spots in the nation for coronavirus spread on Thursday, with health officials reporting a record day of new infections.
North Dakota’s daily positivity rate topped 13% , with 1,038 new virus cases. Nine new deaths were reported on Thursday, bringing the statewide death toll from the virus to 431.
The deaths included seven men and two women, all in their 60s or older.
Gov. Doug Burgum has resisted issuing an order to require a statewide mask mandate. City leaders in Fargo and Minot this week moved to require face coverings in most settings, though the mandates are not enforced. Leaders in Bismarck are expected to consider a similar mandate next week.,
The COVID Tracking Project reported that North Dakota has had more than 1,224 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, which leads the nation. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by more than 73% in the lasts two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Hospitalizations stood at 156, which was up four from the last update.
There were 224 available staffed inpatient beds plus 17 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota, according to state data.

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North Dakota

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.

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North Dakota

ND unemployment rates drops in last two months

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota’s unemployment rate dropped from 4.8% in August to 3.8% in September, nearly half that of the national rate, the state’s job service agency said Tuesday.
Job Service North Dakota said there were 4,432 fewer unemployed people between the two months. The state typically sees a moderate decrease in unemployment numbers between August and September, Job Service officials said.
The state unemployment rate in September 2019 was two percentage points lower than the current rate.
The national seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for September was 7.7%. It was 8.5%t the prior month and 3.3%t the prior year.

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North Dakota

ND virus cases set high, positivity rate nears 20%

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota’s daily positivity rate for COVID-19 neared 20% Tuesday as health officials reported a record of more than 1,000 cases in the last day.
The update of 1,036 new cases lifted the total number of the coronavirus cases statewide to 33,666 since the pandemic began.
The COVID Tracking Project reported that North Dakota has had more than 1,150 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, which leads the nation. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 70% in the lasts two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
The surge in cases prompted city leaders in Fargo and Minot on Monday to require face coverings in most settings. Gov. Doug Burgum has resisted issuing an order to require a statewide mask mandate even as the number of cases soar.
Health officials confirmed four new deaths on Tuesday, bringing the statewide death toll from the virus to 412.
The new deaths reported Tuesday include two women and two men, all in their 60s or older. Hospitalizations stood at 145, which was down eight from the last update.
There were 245 available staffed inpatient beds plus 20 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota, according to state data.

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North Dakota

Mayor at ND’s largest city wants ‘dramatic’ steps

FARGO (AP) — The mayor of North Dakota’s largest city said Monday he’d like to see a statewide mask mandate as the coronavirus spins out of control.
Tim Mahoney, who in addition to being Fargo’s mayor is also a general surgeon, has been largely supportive of Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s approach to managing the pandemic. But he said up to one in four people being tested for the virus in his city in recent weeks has tested positive, and he wants Burgum to make masks mandatory.
Cass County, which includes Fargo, had over 200 new cases Monday and has had nearly 8,000 since the pandemic began. It’s been one of the hardest-hit spots in a state that has ranked worst in the nation for daily new cases per capita the past two weeks.
“We’re not doing well. I’m very concerned,” Mahoney told The Associated Press. “Our counts are not going down so we’re going to have to do something dramatic to get them down.”
North Dakota leads the nation in the number of new cases per capita in the last two weeks, a distinction it has held many times in the last couple of months, according to Johns Hopkins Researchers.
Burgum has in many respects left management of the virus up to local leaders and Mahoney himself cast the deciding vote against a mask mandate at the last city commission meeting. Mahoney explained that stance by saying enforcement is an issue and is made more complicated by whether or not next-door neighbors like West Fargo and Horace follow suit.
Now, as commissioners were scheduled to revisit the face coverings idea at Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting, Mahoney said it “would be great” if Burgum issued an order for the entire state.
“Statistics have shown you get better compliance if it’s the whole state as opposed to one (city or county) at a time,” the mayor said.
Burgum’s spokesman did not immediately respond to an email message seeking comment.
Burgum in May formed a task force to address rising virus rates in eastern North Dakota and the move seemed to pay off in Fargo as positivity rates fell to about 2%. Midway through the summer, state officials turned their attention to a spike in the Bismarck-Mandan area, which had the most active cases at the time. It appears that Fargo has once again become the hot spot.
“We’re looking at sites reporting positivity rates of 18% to 25%,” Mahoney said. “We never thought we would get that high.”
Statewide positivity rates have been running over 10% for most of the last week, although the figure dropped to 8.17% in the last day. Hospitalizations rose by six to a record 153. The state went over 400 deaths over the weekend.
There were 271 available staffed inpatient beds plus 26 intensive care unit beds in North Dakota, according to state data reported Monday. In Fargo, there were 10 ICU beds and 26 regular beds at Essentia Health, up from three and 10 the day before. There were four ICU beds and nine regular beds at Sanford Health, up from zero and five, and no ICU beds and eight regular beds at the VA Hospital.
“Hospitals are getting full the death counts are too high,” Mahoney said. “If you have a heart attack and the hospital is full, we have to figure out what we’re going to do. How are you going to manage that?”

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North Dakota

Names of three area residents involved in crash in Cass County released

HARWOOD – Two area residents died and another was seriously injured when their vehicle and a semi truck pulling a hopper trailer crashed at the intersecton of Cass County 20 and Cass County 17 in the Harwood area on Friday.
The North Dakota Highway Patrol said a Chrysler Town & Country minivan driven by Jeannette Arnold, 76, Esmond, was going west on Cass County 20 and a semi truck pulling a hopper trailer driven by Terry Goeser, 54, Casselton, was going north on Cass County 17.
Arnold failed to stop at the intersection of of Cass County 17 and struck the side of the hopper trailer being pulled by the Freightliner, the Highway Patrol said.
Arnold and a 75-year-old male passenger from Rugby, Dennis Marthe, died at the scene. An 80-year-old female passenger from Rugby, Rita Wentz, was seriously injured and flown to Sanford Hospital in Fargo, the Highway Patrol said. The semi truck driver was not injured.
The crash happened at 9:57 a.m.