North Dakota health officials on Thursday reported five more coronavirus-related deaths, making October the deadliest COVID-19 month this year.
There have been 77 COVID-19 deaths this month, one more than the previous 2021 high in January, according to the Health Department's virus dashboard. The October total is still well below the state's pandemic high of 500 deaths last November, but fatalities have increased after a summer lull amid the onset of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus. As a comparison, only 11 virus-related deaths occurred in July.
Not all of the COVID-19 deaths reported by the state are due directly to the disease. The statewide breakdown is about 83% of deaths in which COVID-19 was the cause, and 17% in which the disease was present but not the primary cause of death.
The state no longer publicly reports the county, sex and age range of newly confirmed deaths. The dashboard total for Burleigh County has increased by three in the past two days, to 230. Morton County's total has gone up by one, to 113.
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COVID-19 hospitalizations remained high on Thursday, at 189. Fewer than 9% of staffed inpatient beds statewide were available. Fewer than 6% of intensive care unit beds were available. The most recent state data showed 174 available staffed inpatient beds and 14 available ICU beds statewide. In Bismarck, neither Sanford Health nor CHI St. Alexius Health had any available beds listed in either category, for a second straight day.
Active COVID-19 cases rose slightly, to 3,565 statewide with 662 in Burleigh-Morton counties. But the recent delta-fueled spike in new cases appears to have begun to wane, and modeling by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates new cases in North Dakota will continue to decline in November. However, it also indicates deaths will continue to rise in the state for several more weeks.
"Deaths and hospitalizations are generally lagging indicators. They are the later consequences of disease," Kirby Kruger, head of the Health Department's disease control division and forensic pathology section, told the Tribune. "Generally they lag behind disease reports by up to a couple of weeks."
Sanford Health Bismarck incoming President and CEO Dr. Todd Schaffer said changes in hospitalization numbers can lag about 10 days behind changes in positivity rates. COVID-19 case numbers have declined during the past week, and Schaffer said Sanford's numbers could start to reflect that drop.
"We know that we're still kind of at that peak, but we haven't seen a significant drop with where we're at," Schaffer said. "But we are starting to see a trend downward."
Sanford Bismarck had 35 COVID-19 patients and 16 patients who were no longer actively infected but still requiring care on Thursday.
The state has confirmed 2,278 new COVID-19 cases the first five days of this week, including 543 on Thursday. The total is a 22% drop from 2,929 in the first five days of last week.
CDC data show that North Dakota's seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases has declined for nine straight days. And the state's 14-day rolling average test positivity rate declined for a 10th straight day, to 7.09%, according to the state dashboard. That's still above the state target of less than 5%, but the rate had been as high as 8.07% reported Oct. 7.
The Health Department has confirmed 143,521 COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, with 138,253 recoveries, 5,759 hospitalizations and 1,703 deaths.
"Hopefully we will continue to see declines in reported cases and that hospitalizations and deaths will decline soon," Kruger said, adding that "The risk of death due to COVID-19 can be reduced through vaccination and early treatment with monoclonal antibodies, for those who may need that therapy."
The state's vaccine dashboard shows 54.7% of eligible North Dakota adults and 32.7% 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.