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North Dakota starts mask campaign 5 months into pandemic

August 10, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this March 27, 2020 file photo, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D. North Dakota spent a record amount of cash on merit bonuses for some state workers, despite a grim financial outlook caused by the coronavirus pandemic, records show.Most of the money was paid at the end of the fiscal year that ended June 30, and just weeks after Gov. Doug Burgum said the state was in a financial crisis. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)_
FILE - In this March 27, 2020 file photo, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D. North Dakota spent a record amount of cash on merit bonuses for some state workers, despite a grim financial outlook caused by the coronavirus pandemic, records show.Most of the money was paid at the end of the fiscal year that ended June 30, and just weeks after Gov. Doug Burgum said the state was in a financial crisis. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)_

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Department of Health officials on Monday kicked off a campaign to convince residents to wear masks in an effort to reduce spread of the coronavirus, five months after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the state.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has not issued a mask mandate, even though he has used his weekly press briefings to give emotional pleas supporting face coverings. He said Monday that he doesn’t plan on joining 34 states in requiring masks, instead emphasizing individual responsibility, local decision making and a “light touch” by government.

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“Wearing a mask and doing it properly is a way to show we care for others in our community. My mask protects you and your mask protects me,” Burgum said. “There’s only one thing to say when you see someone wearing a mask and that’s ‘thank you.’”

The state has set several records for active virus cases in recent days, including Monday’s health department update showing that 1,116 people are currently infected. There have been recent spikes in the Bismarck-Mandan area and on the state’s American Indian reservations, as well as an increase in positive tests among rural residents.

Asked why the state waited until now to start marketing masks, Burgum said he has been regularly encouraging them but many particularly young people are not tuning in to his weekly briefings. It seemed like the right time to “dial up the communication (and) education” with the recent flare-ups and schools about to start, the Republican governor said.

Health officials don’t yet have a budget for the initiative and are depending on social media, the health department website and word of mouth. Health department spokeswoman Nicole Peske told The Associated Press that the campaign is using “organized grassroots methods” to promote the Mask Up North Dakota effort and “are working with our partners to get the word out through their stakeholders.”

A budget meeting is scheduled later this week to determine if any money can be dedicated toward the project, she said.

Andrew Stahl, the interim state health officer, said he believes the campaign will make a “huge impact” and it is a cheap, effective way to fight the virus.

The outbreak in the Bismarck-Mandan area continues to show in the form of 294 active cases in Burleigh County and 115 in Morton County. The state’s most populous county, Cass, has 107 active cases. Burgum credited a task force in the Fargo area for the decrease in Cass County cases and he expects success from a similar task force in the capital city area.

The update included new death, a Stutsman County woman in her 70s with underlying health conditions. The death toll now stands at 113.

Burgum said overall the state is in a good position because of increased testing, low daily positivity rates and the availability of hospital beds and treatment options. The hospitalizations rose by one from Sunday, to 48.

“I’m feeling very optimistic about where this is all going to end,” Burgum said.