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New omicron mutant surfaces in North Dakota; COVID-19 hospitalizations remain low

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Another highly transmissible version of the coronavirus that's been spreading around the country has surfaced in North Dakota.

State health officials over the past week confirmed the first case of BA.2.12.1, another descendant of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, and of omicron's BA.2 mutation, which was first detected in North Dakota in early February.

"Early indicators are that (BA.2.12.1) is about 30% more infectious than BA.2," state Medical Services Section Chief Kirby Kruger said. "Disease severity appears to be similar to BA.2, and vaccinations with a booster will likely provide good protection against severe disease and hospitalizations."

BA.2 remains the dominant omicron subvariant circulating both in the U.S. and in the region that includes North Dakota, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last week it accounted for about 56% of new cases nationally and nearly 63% regionally. BA.2.12.1 accounted for about 43% of new infections nationally and 36% regionally.

The State Lab puts positive COVID-19 test samples through a "sequencing" process to determine variants. Omicron remains the dominant one in North Dakota. All of the sequenced samples in the past week were omicron.

"Overall, since omicron was first confirmed in North Dakota on Dec. 19, 2021, there have been 6,883 sequenced samples reported and 5,710 (83%) have been omicron," Kruger said. "Of the specimens collected on or after April 17 that have been sequenced and determined to be omicron, 97.4% were BA.2."

Omicron spreads more easily than earlier variants including delta, but it generally causes less-severe disease than previous variants, according to the CDC.

Weekly data

COVID-19 cases in North Dakota continue to tick up, with 723 confirmations over the past week, according to the state Health Department's coronavirus dashboard. It's the sixth consecutive week that the total has increased. The previous week's total was 613, and the week before that it was 440.

"Cases are increasing in North Dakota, but at a much more moderate pace than what we experienced in January with our omicron peak," Kruger said. "The emergence of these new variants is a reminder that this virus is still with us and still circulating through our communities. Fortunately hospitalizations are still relatively low."

kirby kruger.jpg

Kirby Kruger

Thirty-one people with COVID-19 were admitted to North Dakota hospitals during the week. Coronavirus patients continue to make up a low percentage of hospital patients -- taking up less than 3% of occupied inpatient beds and intensive care unit beds statewide.

The two hospitals in Bismarck on Friday had a total of 11 staffed adult and pediatric inpatient hospital beds available, and three adult and pediatric ICU beds open.

There have been 242,462 confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Dakota during the pandemic that began in March 2020. Federal data shows 2,272 virus-related deaths in the state, up four from last week. County-level death data is not available.

The state also no longer reports the number of active COVID-19 cases, as part of the recent shift in its coronavirus approach from pandemic to "endemic," essentially meaning that coronavirus is expected to be a part of daily life.

The weekly reporting aims to show longer-term trends and severity of disease, rather than daily virus data that could be skewed by the fact that results from widely available COVID-19 home test kits are not required to be reported to the state.

More information

Federal data shows that North Dakota continues to have some of the worst COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country: 66.3% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated, with the rate for all vaccine-eligible people -- age 5 and older -- at 59.9%. The national averages are 76.3% and 70.6%, respectively. 

COVID-19 booster shots are recommended for people 12 and older. North Dakota's booster rate is 44.5%, compared to 48.1% nationally.

County-level COVID-19 risks determined by the CDC can be found at https://bit.ly/3Clifrq. Burleigh and Morton counties both are considered at low risk, as is much of the rest of the state.

State Health Department guidance and resources for businesses is at https://bit.ly/3w0DpKj

Go to https://www.ndvax.org or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available. Information on free public testing and free test kits is at health.nd.gov/covidtesting. More detailed pandemic information is at www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus and https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

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

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