North Dakota Coronavirus Case Records Broken Every Day for a Week as Governor Continues to Refuse Mask Mandate

North Dakota has reported a new record for active coronavirus cases yet again as the state prepares to launch a $1.8 million public health campaign in order to encourage the use of masks.

North Dakota is one of the few states that does not have a mask mandate in place. Governor Doug Burgum has rejected the idea of issuing one, preferring instead to advocate for their use by appealing to residents' sense of personal responsibility.

On Sunday, the North Dakota Department of Health reported 343 new COVID-19 cases, with the number of active cases rising by around 100 to 3,766—a new pandemic high. In fact, the state has set a new record for active cases every day since September 21.

North Dakota also has the highest rate of infection per capita out of any state in the nation—363 cases for every 100,000 people, data compiled by The New York Times shows.

In total, the state, which has a relatively small population of around 760,000, has confirmed 20,724 coronavirus cases, and 231 related deaths, with the vast majority of those—84—coming in the month of September.

While the number of active hospitalizations has been rising steadily since July, only around six percent of ICU beds in the state are occupied due to COVID-19.

Amid the latest spike in cases, the state health department is set to launch a public education campaign aimed at increasing the use of masks and adherence to health measures, such as social distancing and hand-washing, the Grand Forks Herald reported.

"I'm not really sure what the hesitancy is to wear a mask," Dr. Paul Mariani, an infectious disease specialist who stepped down as North Dakota's interim health officer on Friday, told the Herald. "The way I see it, wearing a mask shouldn't be a wedge issue."

Mariani became the third state health officer to resign since the pandemic started, with the scientist citing disagreements with the Governor's Office regarding a quarantine order that was rescinded last Thursday as his reason for leaving the role.

Mariani said the aim of the public health campaign was to spread the message that individual responsibility was critical to mitigating the spread of the virus.

"Let's tackle this virus as a community," he said. "We're asking that people make it their choice."

But Carrie Anne Platt, an associate professor of communication at North Dakota State University, told the Herald that such a campaign would be more effective if it was accompanied by a statewide mask mandate.

"With COVID-19, you can put other people at risk, but we know from research that it's not very motivating," she said.

Doug Burgum
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum holds a press conference on February 22, 2017 in Mandan, North Dakota. The governor has rejected a mask mandate for the state during the pandemic. Stephen Yang/Getty Images

Other states across the Midwest are also seeing a notable rise in cases, including North Dakota's neighbor, South Dakota.

The number of new cases in the state reached a record high of 579 on Saturday, figures from the health department show—the third time in a week that the record has been broken.

South Dakota also has the second highest rate of infections per capita in the country after North Dakota. And on Sunday, the state reported 216 patients hospitalized for COVID-19—another record high. On Thursday, the state tied its record for daily deaths, with eight fatalities reported. The previous record was set just a week before.

The latest spike in cases in the state comes soon after the Sturgis Motorcycle rally—an event that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the state—which was held between August 7 and 16.

More than 365,000 people—equivalent to around 40 percent of the state's normal population—attended the event in what was possibly one of the largest gatherings of people in the country since the start of the pandemic, Forbes reported.

Many attendees did not wear masks at the event, despite the fact that some locations were crowded with little social distancing, photos of the rally show.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
People watch a concert at the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota on August 9, 2020. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

By the beginning of September, more than 260 coronavirus infections across the country had been traced back to the event, with over 100 being recorded in South Dakota, NPR reported. The number of currently hospitalized people is more than triple what it was on the day the rally ended, although it is not clear how many of these cases were linked to the event.

South Dakota has no coronavirus restrictions for businesses—although they are encouraged to follow public health guidelines—and no mask mandate in place. In addition, Republican Governor Kristi Noem has said she will not implement further COVID-19 restrictions.

Correction 9/30/20: This article was updated to correctly state that South Dakota has the second highest rate of infections per capita in the country after North Dakota.