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North Dakota reports 4 new virus deaths; most Sanford COVID-19 patients unvaccinated

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The North Dakota Department of Health reported four new deaths related to COVID-19 Thursday, and the state's active case count is nearing 3,000, a number not seen since December.

The deaths bring the state's pandemic toll to 1,571. The Health Department no longer publicly reports the county, sex and age range of newly confirmed virus-related deaths but the number of Burleigh County deaths increased by three for a total of 207. Morton County stayed unchanged at 102.

The Health Department also reported 617 new COVID-19 cases from 10,138 new tests, bring the state's total case count to 2,946 cases. The last time active cases were that high was in December, at the end of North Dakota's winter surge. Thursday's positivity rate was 6.32%, and the state's 14-day positivity rate was 6.55%.

Burleigh County had 487 active cases, and Morton County had 126. Cass County led the state with 621.

Hospitalizations also increased Thursday, up to 111, and 14 patients were in the intensive care unit. A total of 4,827 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 during the pandemic.

CHI St. Alexius Health in Bismarck had one available staffed ICU bed Thursday afternoon, no inpatient beds, one pediatric ICU bed and one pediatric inpatient bed, according to state data. Sanford Bismarck had no available ICU, pediatric ICU or inpatient beds available. Two pediatric beds were open.

Almost 698,000 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the state. Just over 51% of adults and about 27% of adolescents ages 12 to 18 are fully vaccinated.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks in public indoor settings in areas with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission. That's calculated based on new cases per capita and testing results. All but one of North Dakota's 53 counties are in those two categories, with most in the high category. Burleigh and Morton both are in the high category, according to the agency's COVID-19 data tracker website.

Sanford Bismarck

COVID-19 cases at Sanford Bismarck are beginning to level off, but officials are still expecting the state's virus surge to peak in the next week. 

Incoming President and CEO of Sanford Bismarck Todd Schaffer said Thursday the hospital had 22 COVID-19 patients, four of which were in the ICU. One child was in the pediatric ICU. The facility has the capacity to treat patients and has no plans to use additional facilities as COVID-19 units like it did last winter.

Sanford's emergency room has seen record volume, and walk-in clinics are busier as well, he said. Pediatric hospitalizations have been stable, though more patients have been coming in to clinics or the emergency department.

The hospital has put out request for traveling health care workers to help with the surge, but there aren't many available as virus cases have increased around the country, Schaffer said. More than 500 volunteers have stepped up to fill shifts. A significant increase in cases could lead to discussion of delaying elective procedures to free up staff. Sanford has "slightly limited" those procedures, but delaying care could cause the need for more urgent care in the future, Schaffer said. Patients should discuss any surgeries with their doctors.

Schaffer also said that the new cases are a disease largely of the unvaccinated. Data from 22 Sanford hospitals show that of 135 COVID-19 patients, 126 were unvaccinated, and 37 out of 38 intensive care patients were not fully vaccinated. Only one person out of 26 who were on ventilators was fully vaccinated.

Masks in schools

More than 150 North Dakota health care workers have signed an open letter to superintendents, school board members and parents in the state to require masks for students, staff and school visitors, regardless of vaccination status.

"As physicians and healthcare providers in your communities, we have seen firsthand the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on our patients, hospitals and health care workers," the letter said. "It is a battle we are fighting every day. In an effort to keep our communities healthy, we need your help to keep our students safe and healthy."

The medical professionals said they recommend masks because of how contagious the delta variant is, low vaccination rates in North Dakota, inadequate COVID-19 testing in schools and increased pediatric hospitalization rates across the country.

More information

A list of free COVID-19 testing offered by local public health units is at health.nd.gov/covidtesting. People can go to health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator or call 866-207-2880 to see where COVID-19 vaccine is available near them. 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. For information on county-level virus transmission risks, go to https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view.

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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