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COVID-19 death surge in North Dakota continues; state official discusses booster shots

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Molly Howell, the North Dakota Department of Health's immunization program manager

Eleven more North Dakotans with COVID-19 have died, adding to a recent surge amid spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the state's top immunization official on Friday offered more guidance on vaccine booster shots.

The new deaths were reflected on the Health Department's virus dashboard Friday, raising North Dakota's pandemic death toll to 1,714. The state no longer publicly reports the county, sex and age range of newly confirmed deaths. The dashboard death total for Morton County increased by one, to 114. Burleigh County's total remained unchanged, at 230.

There have been 149 virus-related deaths confirmed statewide in September and October, compared with 137 in the previous seven months combined, according to state data. Thirty-four deaths have been reported in just the past four days.

Deaths in the state aren't expected to begin tailing off for a couple more weeks, according to modeling by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A rise in COVID-19 cases during the recent surge has begun waning, and CDC modeling indicates that will continue. The state still reported 571 new cases on Friday, and 3,600 active cases statewide, including 647 active cases in Burleigh-Morton counties.

The delta variant is still present in North Dakota, according to data provided by Kirby Kruger, head of the Health Department's disease control division and forensic pathology section.

Confirmed delta cases in the state rose by 172 over the past week, to 1,686, and the variant continues to out-muscle others -- there were no new cases of the five other variants that have been previously confirmed in the state: alpha, beta, gamma, epsilon and mu. 

North Dakota's state lab has identified 3,082 cases of the six variants, though the actual number is almost certainly higher than the data indicates, since only a fraction of virus test samples undergo the more complex process through which variants are determined.

There have been 246 hospitalizations and 31 deaths linked to variants in North Dakota; more than half of each are linked to delta.

The Health Department has confirmed 144,088 COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, with 138,774 recoveries and 5,771 hospitalizations.

COVID-19 hospitalizations remained high on Friday, at 183. About 8.5% of staffed inpatient beds statewide were available. A little more than 6% of intensive care unit beds were available. The most recent state data showed 179 available staffed inpatient beds and 15 available ICU beds statewide. In Bismarck, neither Sanford Health nor CHI St. Alexius Health had any available beds listed in either category, for a third straight day.

Deaths and hospitalizations are the "later consequences of disease," so declines in those categories typically lag a couple of weeks behind sliding case numbers, according to Kruger.

Boosting boosters

The CDC on Thursday expanded the nation’s vaccine booster campaign, announcing that specific Moderna and Johnson & Johnson recipients qualify, and that the agency is allowing people to mix vaccine brands for their booster dose. Pfizer boosters have been underway since last month.

More than 120 million Americans will become eligible for a booster in the coming months, or about 2 out of every 3 vaccinated adults, according to The Associated Press. But who’s eligible -- and when -- differs depending on which vaccine you got first.

North Dakota Health Department Immunization Director Molly Howell on Friday said people who are 65 or older, have an underlying health condition, or live or work in certain institutional or occupational settings are able to receive a booster dose.

"Effectiveness is waning against mild to moderate infection, which is why booster doses are recommended for certain individuals," she said.

Booster doses for those who previously received the Moderna or J&J vaccine may not be available in North Dakota until later next week, according to Howell.

Nearly 37,000 North Dakotans have already received three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

For more details, go to https://bit.ly/2XH7tfq.

More information

The state's vaccine dashboard shows 54.8% of eligible North Dakota adults and 32.8% of adolescents in the 12-18 age group are considered fully vaccinated. North Dakota has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S., according to the CDC. People can go to https://www.ndvax.org or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available near them.

The coronavirus transmission risk is considered substantial or high in all of North Dakota's 53 counties but Cavalier, according to the CDC's COVID-19 data tracker website. The CDC recommends people in those risk categories wear masks in public indoor settings. The transmission risk in the Bismarck-Mandan region is considered high.

A list of free COVID-19 testing offered by local public health units is at health.nd.gov/covidtesting. For more detailed information on coronavirus in North Dakota, go to www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus. For more information on coronavirus variants, go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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