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New data shows extent of omicron surge in North Dakota; COVID-19 cases soar again

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Active COVID-19 cases took another big jump in North Dakota on Thursday but coronavirus-related hospitalizations dropped considerably, following a trend associated with the new omicron variant of the virus.

Health officials say the variant is highly contagious but often causes few or no symptoms, meaning it's not pushing up hospitalization numbers like the delta variant did late last year.

Omicron has been spreading around the globe, and it hit North Dakota hard this week. Confirmed cases more than tripled, according to weekly variant data provided by Kirby Kruger, head of the Health Department's disease control division and forensic pathology section. While confirmed delta cases rose only 5%, omicron cases increased nearly 338%.

About 5-10% of total positive COVID-19 tests weekly undergo the more complex process through which variants are determined -- enough to create a representative sample for state health officials, according to Kruger.

"With omicron being more infectious than delta, we did expect rapid increases, and increases are likely to continue," Kruger said. "While the (COVID-19) vaccines have shown to be effective in reducing severe illness and hospitalizations, they are less effective in preventing infections."

The Health Department has confirmed nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases this month -- double the total the first six days of December. There were 1,363 new cases reflected on Thursday's state coronavirus dashboard, and officials calculated a positivity rate of 15.41%.

The state's 14-day rolling test positivity rate jumped by more than a percent, to 10.65% -- nearing double what it was just two weeks ago. The state target of less than 5% was last met about five months ago.

Active COVID-19 cases Thursday soared to 3,721, including nearly 700 in Burleigh-Morton counties. The statewide total was a 26% increase from Wednesday and a 128% rise from Monday's total.

But the number of COVID-19 patients in North Dakota hospitals dropped by 15 on Thursday, to 115 -- the lowest reported total in eight days. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top medical adviser, said this week that hospitalization numbers are more relevant than case numbers when it comes to omicron.

Available hospital beds in North Dakota still remain short, as they have been for months due in part to staffing shortages. The most recent state data showed about 7% of staffed inpatient beds available statewide and about 4% of intensive care unit beds open. In Bismarck, CHI St. Alexius Health had one available staffed general care bed and no open ICU beds; Sanford Health had none listed in either category.

The Health Department has confirmed only two omicron-related hospitalizations and no deaths statewide, compared to 361 delta-related hospitalizations and 68 deaths.

Thursday's dashboard showed four more virus-related deaths. The Health Department no longer publicly reports the county, sex and age range of newly confirmed deaths. The dashboard death total for Burleigh County increased by one Thursday, to 282; Morton County's total was unchanged, at 131. Cass County, home to Fargo, saw its state-leading total rise by one, to 290.

There have been 179,161 confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Dakota during the pandemic that began nearly two years ago, in March 2020. There have been 173,413 recoveries, 7,026 hospitalizations and 2,027 deaths in the state.

More information

North Dakota continues to have one of the worst COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Agency data on Tuesday showed 63.9% of North Dakota adults being fully vaccinated. The rate for all vaccine-eligible people in the state -- age 5 and older -- is 56.8%.

The CDC recommends COVID-19 booster shots for all adults; 43.3% of North Dakota adults have received a third dose of vaccine, according to state data. The federal agency Wednesday also recommended that adolescents ages 12-17 receive boosters as well.

"Booster doses help increase the effectiveness of vaccines against infections and severe disease," Kruger said. "Also, prior infection with earlier variants does not provide complete immunity, and vaccination helps to protect these individuals against severe disease as well."

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

People can go to https://www.ndvax.org or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available near them. 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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