Monday, the governor announced a measure meant to relieve the strain on hospitals because of COVID-19.

“To allow asymptomatic COVID-positive health care workers to work in COVID units of licensed health care facilities,” Gov. Burgum said.

North Dakota Nurses Association President Tessa Johnson says it’s a step too far.

“It was a gut punch for all the nurses in the state, everywhere, are barely hanging on,” Johnson said.

Johnson says the plan would put other nurses at risk, and set a bad example for the public, who have long been told to stay home if they test positive.

“We are a very trusted profession, and so if we are asking people in our communities, close contacts for instance to stay home for 14 days, but we’re not doing that, what kind of example does that leave?” Johnson said.

North Dakota’s Emergency Nurses Association President Adam Johnston says that while Burgum’s announcement is aligned with CDC crisis guidelines, it should be a last resort.

“It may need to come into play, it doesn’t make sense to do this out of order, without the other approaches, without the other strategies,” Johnston said.

Johnston says those other strategies include a statewide mask mandate, which the governor repeatedly has opposed.

“We’re one of 16 states that does not have a mask mandate despite having the higher ratios,” Johnston said.

However, North Dakota Long Term Care Association President Shelly Peterson says the announcement will help with staffing shortages.

“We find ourselves eight months later with a number of COVID-positive residents and a number of COVID-positive staff, and staffing challenges have been significant,” Peterson said.

For it to work, Peterson says staff must want to work, strict policies must be in place to protect all employees and there should be an approved COVID unit separate from other areas.

So far, she says she thinks there’s enough support from employees to make it effective.

“We only started to consider this as an option, when, number one, staff went to their administrators and said, ‘Hey there’s a need, I would like to work.’ It came from the bottom up,” Peterson said.

Both nurses associations have called for a mask mandate, and both groups say they expect a bleak outlook for hospitals over the winter months if the virus isn’t under control.

“With holidays coming, we’re preparing ourselves for a very dark next six, eight weeks,” Johnson said.

“We need our numbers to slow down because we’re going to be in a world of hurt if they keep going up,” Johnston said.

As of Thursday, there were nine available staffed ICU beds in the entire state.