State, local officials update public on impact, progress of COVID-19 in North Dakota

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Interim Commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce Shawn Kessel speaks about new grant opportunities available through the government during the COVID-19 Business Panel hosted by the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 9.

Wednesday, the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce held a COVID-19 business panel made up of state and local officials to discuss with the public how the state is handling the hit COVID-19 has taken on local businesses and how the virus has impacted the state.

The panel was made up of Interim Commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce Shawn Kessel, director of the North Dakota Division of Disease Kirby Kruger, Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson, and Devils Lake chief of police Joe Knowski. Kessel opened up the program addressing the various grants that have been are available to local businesses around the state and some that are still available.  

The newest grant available is the Hospitality Economic Resiliency Grant PLUS, which started accepting applications on Dec. 8. This grant is made specifically for lodging businesses, such as hotels and up to $80,000 can be obtained through the grant, $40,000 per site. The grant will be available until Dec. 18 at 5 p.m.  

"These grant funds are also meant to reimburse basic operational expenses such as payroll, utilities, rent, mortgage, technology, and all of those things," Kessel said. "You've got a nice tourism industry in Devils Lake, so the lodging facilities are most likely eligible." 

Kessel also highlighted the progress of the past grants that the state has given out: Economic Resiliency Grant and Hospitality Resiliency Grant. The ERG reimbursed business for up to $50,000 for safety upgrades and supplying PPE. $37 million were awarded across North Dakota to 3,000 applicants. The Economic Resiliency Grant and Hospitality Resiliency Grant are no longer accepting applications.  

There is also an individual focus by the government, specifically in the Medical Expense Assistance Program. The program, which opened on Dec. 9, is focused on medical workers and first responders, to provided financial assistance for COVID-19 related expenses. Up to $5,000 can be received through the program, with $1,000 going to the individual and $4,000 going towards medical expenses. The state will be giving out $2.5 million through this grant.  

"You have to be an emergency responder or a front line worker that has been infected with COVID-19," Kessel said. "The definition of those two things are in the executive orders. You also to have been denied workers compensation claim to be eligible for this grant." 

The final individual program the state has boosted more money into is the Rent Bridge Program, for those who have been laid off and are having trouble covering rent. Around $3 million has been put into the grant, which will be administered by the Department of Human Services. 

Kruger talked about the progress of the state's positive numbers, testing, and progress on a vaccine administered in the state. While COVID-19 numbers have been going down since the executive order for a state-wide mask mandate was put in place on Nov. 14, the state is seeing a drop in testing numbers and hospital rates staying high

"The one note of caution that I've seen is that our testing numbers have been down, so we need to make sure that we're understanding that," Kruger said. "The good news is that our positivity rate is coming down, which helps us to understand that it's not about the number of tests, but also the number of people who are testing positive." 

Kruger said hospitalizations and case decline don't match each other, which is a point of concern. Testing continues to stay focused on long-term care facilities and those who are symptomatic. Community testing is extremely encouraged by the Department of Health. 

"As we continue to try to expand testing, we know people are probably tired of testing and tired of this pandemic in general," Kruger said. "I think that's a relatively universal feeling. China announced the emergence of this virus on New Year's Eve in 2019, so we're coming in on one year on the discovery of this virus. We do have some good tools, and one of them is testing."

Antigen testing is another point Kruger mentioned, saying that they are inexpensive and can find positive cases quicker. Kruger said The one downfall to the new test is that it can miss some positive results. There is work being done around the state to implement testing further with antigen testing. 

Focusing on vaccine progress, the two vaccines that are being looked at by health departments across the country are from Pfizer and Moderna. Kruger said they are expecting approval soon with the Pfizer vaccine being in the state as early as next week. The dosage will be limited to around 6,800 doses. Guidance for vaccine administration still needs to be done by the Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices, which won't meet until the FDA issues emergency usage of the vaccine. 

"The first doses of vaccines that will come into the state will be used to vaccinate health care workers, primarily in our referral hospitals," Kruger said. "We will be receiving weekly allotment doses of vaccine and those numbers will increase as we go." 

The Pfizer vaccine will be separated into two doses between 3-4 weeks. The federal government is holding the second dose for those who initially received it. Moderna is expected to come into the U.S. by the end of December and is expect 13,000 doses to come in. 

"With those doses, will finish up health care workers and move into health care workers in other areas of the state," Kruger said. "We're hoping to get into long term care by the week of Jan. 27." 

Kruger said there is hope that the vaccine can be available to the general population by late winter/early spring. There are still questions that the department of health has about the vaccine, but are remaining positive on the development of the vaccine. 

Zeroing in on Devils Lake, Johnson expressed concern that testing was down. The city is working to publicize testing more through various media outlets and public service announcements. The next testing date is Dec. 16 at Leevers South at the intersection of Highways 2 and 20. 

Masking in Devils Lake has gone up since the city and state mandate according to Johnson, but there still needs to be an effort put in place to take precautions. 

"We're not out of the woods yet," Johnson said. "There's some light at the end of the tunnel, and there's been some great progress made. We need to be diligent in doing our social distancing and following the recommendations."  

Johnson mentioned that he had heard from the National League of Cities Wednesday morning that the league heard from a key Senate office that state local aid hangs in the balance due to senators not hearing from local elected officials. This has led Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to table state and local aid until the next session. 

"We need you to call your senators and ask for aid to be included in a final COVID package," Johnson said. "We've got a lot of folks on here today, so I suggest they get ahold of Tom Brusegaard or Randy Richards and work their phones. We need to get them to get this to Mitch McConnell and get this going. It's important for the state and we need that funding." 

Knowski wrapped up the panel by talking about how the police department has followed enforcement of masking policies. There have been calls about compliance with the police department, but the main focus of the police department's enforcement of masking and social distancing policies is to educate. 

"That's been a positive approach to the enforcement act and it has worked," Knowski said. "People have complied or have left the establishments. It's a common-sense approach."  

Non-compliance has been classified as an infraction and can be fined up to $1,000 depending on how the district judge rules. Guidelines are being followed by the state and ordinances. Knowski said that there haven't been any problems other than a drop in compliance. 

"I'll be honest with you, I wasn't a firm believer in the whole mask thing, but I kind of is now," Knowski said. "I see it's definitely helping out, and I've always complied with the law. I hope everyone is that way and that we all help one another." 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for The Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.

COVID-19 testing information

City: Devils Lake 

Testing dates: Dec. 9, 16, 23, 30

Where: Leevers South, Intersection of Highways 2 and 20 

Times: 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. 

You must pre-regester before getting tested at testreg.nd.gov

Other testing locations

City: Rugby

Testing dates: Dec. 16, 23, 30 

Where: Village Arts Center (formerall Bethany Lutheran Church) 

Times: 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. 

Tests are by appointment only. Appointments can be made by calling 701-771-7637

City: New Rockford 

Testing dates: Tuesdays and Thursdays in December

Where: The Brown Memorial Auditorium (use north door) 

Times: 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. 

Tests are by appointment only. Appointments can be made by calling 701-947-5311