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North Dakota scrambles to speed up virus test notifications

North Dakota scrambles to speed up virus test notifications


BISMARCK, N.D. — 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 also 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. And public health officials will no longer notify close contacts of people who tested positive; instead those individuals will be instructed to self-notify their close contacts and direct them to the department's website.

North Dakota, with its loose regulations, has the country's worst per-capita spread rate, with 1,224 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, 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.

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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