Grand Forks shelves plan to attach public health plans to local COVID gauge

On Monday, amid a weekslong downturn in countywide COVID figures, Grand Forks City Council members voted to sh

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On Monday, amid a weekslong downturn in countywide COVID figures, Grand Forks City Council members voted to shelve indefinitely a plan to attach recommendations to the Grand Forks Health Officer’s Dashboard, which uses county-level data and a self-assessment from Altru Health System to gauge the risk posed by the virus on a given day.

Grand Forks Public Health staff put together the more local gauge earlier this summer, patterning it after a similar one established under the North Dakota Smart Restart plan, but the numbers it spits out and the risk levels it deems the county to be in leave no guidance.

At an Aug. 31 meeting, Council members asked city administrators to begin drafting policy recommendations that would go hand in hand with the local measurement tool’s assessment of the virus’ threat. It was a first step toward, in effect, creating a more localized version of the state’s measurement system, which recommends certain precautions for residents and businesses to follow at each threat level but, up to that point, had not left the green “low” risk designation when virus metrics rose dramatically across North Dakota. Gov. Doug Burgum has since designated Grand Forks County and several others as "moderate" risk ones.

So why the change?

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“Any official action to engage with the Public Health Officer’s Dashboard seemed to be leading us to a complex situation where we would have to figure out how to put it (in) lockstep with the North Dakota Smart Restart,” said Council member Bret Weber, who has been one of its loudest advocates for a city-specific plan and COVID measurement tool, but also called the vote to set aside, at least for the moment, plans to develop it further. “I was less interested in forcing that issue and mainly interested in making sure that we were recognizing the value of the Public Health Officer’s Dashboard.”

Weber also noted that the city and state are working on more robust public education campaigns that encourage residents to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“At the moment, we want to work in a collaborative fashion with the governor, and he seems to be going in the right direction,” Weber said. “So we’ll see how this goes.”

The state’s plan recommends an escalating series of restrictions based upon the virus’ spread and the public health risks it poses -- less indicated risk means less stringent recommendations.

Weber said on Monday that countywide COVID figures’ downward trend over the past two weeks is a reason for cautious optimism. He told the Herald he’s convinced the city would continue to recognize the value and utility of the information presented by the local-level gauge.

The local gauge analyzes county-level data and spits out a number between 0 and 3 -- the higher the number, the higher the risk to residents, and higher numbers push the county through different assessments of that risk. For instance: relatively few new cases, lots of testing, few positives per test and ample hospital capacity would mean a number between 0 and 0.75, which would mean the virus would pose a “low” risk.

“We are following that dashboard. It is part of what we do to make decisions, as part of recommendations, among other tools,” City Administrator Todd Feland said Wednesday.

The county’s score on Thursday, Sept. 17 was 1.7, which puts it in the “high risk” category.

Grand Forks’ coronavirus measurement tool considers new COVID-19 cases and the number of tests completed per 100,000 residents, the percentage of tests that came back positive over the preceding seven days, the percentage change in new COVID cases and Altru’s self-assessment of its ability to handle COVID patients.

Until this week, the statewide gauge used several other metrics, only some of which are the overlap with Grand Forks’ or are readily available to municipal governments.

It’s now reduced to three: active cases and tests completed per 10,000 residents and a 14-day average of the proportion of tests that come back positive.
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