For the third time in four months, the health director in the state that has become the hottest of the COVID-19 hotspots has either quit or been forced out.
The latest resignation in North Dakota came on Friday, two days after Gov. Doug Burgum briefly demonstrated that he is not a complete coward, and one day after he reverted to his spineless self.
Burgum did not do anything so brave as declare a mask mandate, which is largely opposed by his fellow Republicans even though the state has in recent weeks reported the nation’s highest number of new confirmed cases per capita.
But Burgum at least had the gumption on Wednesday to back an expanded quarantine order promulgated by his third state health director since May, Dr. Paul Mariani.
When Mariani became the latest to take the job in early September, it seemed as if the third time might be the charm for North Dakota. He noted that the state only required household members of confirmed COVID-19 cases to quarantine. He announced on Wednesday that henceforth anyone who had been in close contact with somebody known to be infected would have to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“Quarantining is not convenient,” Mariani told reporters. ”But it is important.”
Burgum wholeheartedly endorsed the move at a Wednesday press conference.
“If you are a close contact or household contact with somebody who’s positive, we now know that there’s possibly a one in three chance you’ll turn out positive yourself,” Burgum noted.
A reporter asked if the new measure carried any penalties. Burgum replied that state law deems it a misdemeanor to violate a state health order—including the initial quarantine measure and the expanded one.
Burgum added that enforcement was being left up to local jurisdictions and the penalty had yet to be imposed for a quarantine violation. He suggested that even if the local boards do not impose criminal charges, they retain the power to do so.
“We do think this will give them a little more clout,” Burgum said.
But the people who have real clout and what rouses them in these Trumpian times became stridently apparent over the next 24 hours.
The possible criminal penalty had received little if any notice when Burgum issued the initial quarantine order for household contacts on April 7. That was before President Trump and his base made masks and other precautions so divisively political.
When Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” then “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” on April 17, he was affirming to his base in every state that efforts to control the virus were infringements on their God-given American freedom. That notion was reinforced by his continuing efforts to minimize the threat, even though he knew full well that COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu.
Cheating on your taxes is nothing compared to cheating on your fundamental obligation as president to protect the American people. Trump seems to have paid only $750 in federal income taxes in the year he was elected, but the important number to remember is this: Tens of thousands of people died as a result of him seeking personal advantage by playing politics with the pandemic.
More lives were placed in jeopardy as the Trumpians in North Dakota seized on the quarantine penalty that they had previously ignored—and which had never been enforced. The widespread reaction prompted state Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert to ask the governor to rescind the expanded order.
“It was about the penalty,” Warder told The Bismarck Tribune. “That’s what caused the problem, not the tracing, and not the other things in there. I know it is in the previous one (order), but when it came up again, people really got concerned.”
One legislator who seemed particularly representative of the base was state Rep. Luke Simons of the Republican Tea Party. He announced on Facebook that “my phone has been ringing off the hook” with constituents upset about the governor’s quarantine penalty. He announced that he would not cooperate with contact tracing, period.
“I would never tell the health department who I was in contact with,” he said. “I just wouldn’t.”
He proceeded to say that COVID-19 is less deadly than the flu. He said he had no reason to fear “a virus that I had to be tested for to learn I even have it.” He suggested Burgum’s actual motivation.
“Our governor is in bed with Bill Gates,” Simons said.
Rather than stand up to such insanity, Burgum followed a moment of courage by turning spineless. He announced on Thursday that he was rescinding the order that he had approved just the day before.
“I would have to just say it didn't flag for me, personally, that by extending it to match the CDC guidelines that we were going to have a firestorm of reaction that we did. That was a miscalculation on my part,” Burgum said. “I guess I have to take accountability.”
By accountability, Burgum apparently meant letting Mariani take the fall.
The governor’s first health director, Mylynn Tufte, has yet to say why she resigned in May. The second, Dr. Andrew Stahl, who resigned in August, said he wanted to build a private practice and focus on his young family. Mariani seemed to suggest that he was left with no choice but to depart.
“While the governor and I agreed on the urgent need to isolate positives and quarantine close contacts in accordance with CDC guidelines, and that the amended order’s penalty provision was overly punitive, the circumstances around the handling of the order made my position untenable,” Mariani told the press.
Mariani’s statement made sense until you thought about it: What does “the circumstances around the handling of the order” actually mean? What seems clear is that the governor is a less than stand-up guy.
Burgum’s decision to rescind the order constituted a betrayal of the many public health officials in North Dakota and elsewhere who have shown considerable courage as they act on our behalf in the face of threats and slander and ignorance that seem to become ever blinder and more aggressive and just plain more dangerous.
Earlier in the pandemic, Trump called himself a wartime president. He proves to be more of a wartime traitor. The real heroes who do fight for us include Erin Ourada, the 30-year-old administrator at Custer Health, which provides public health services in Grant, Mercer, Morton, Oliver, and Sioux counties in North Dakota. She has only been in the position since January and had the roughest of starts.
“My first pandemic,” she told The Daily Beast.
Anybody who doubts her mettle need only look at a video of the Morton County Commission hearing about a possible mask mandate Sept. 10. She stood resolute in a floral mask, informing the commissioners that focusing on precautions just inside the schools would not bring the virus under control.
“All of the prevention methods in the world within the school setting won’t be enough to stop an inevitable outbreak if we can’t control community spread,” Ourada said.
The commission voted unanimously against a mask mandate.
“Liberty and freedom are the foundation of our nation, and liberty and freedom, I believe, in this context, means choice,” Commission Chairman Cody Schulz said.
He offered the oft-said opinion that government should recommend, but not command.
“I’m a mask-wearing advocate but a mask mandate opponent,” Schulz added.
Ourada told The Daily Beast on Monday that the vote and the accompanying attitude “broke my heart a little bit.” But she had not been at all intimidated by the opposition.
“I have no problem getting up and saying those things because they’re true,” she said.
She reported that, from what she sees, simply being a mask advocate and preaching personal responsibility is not enough.
“It doesn't appear to be working in North Dakota,” she said. “I don’t feel as if that message is getting across and I don’t feel people are behaving responsibly. We are experiencing an alarming influx of new cases every day.”
She noted that public health officials were not so long ago among the most trusted and respected figures in America.
“Now all of a sudden people don’t trust us anymore,” she said. “Society got so quick to dismiss science and trust people they used not to trust.”
She regretted that the mandatory close contact quarantine order had been rescinded.
“I think that order would have helped us make some strides,” she said.
She remains a big believer in what she and her colleagues do day after day, no matter what the odds.
“I think public health is the reason why most of us are alive now,” she said.
Ourada has the smarts, dedication, and courage to be a perfect fourth state health director. Burgum could most definitely save some lives by appointing her.
But to do that, he would need more than just a moment of not being a coward.