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State to study COVID-19 immunity; omicron wave continues in North Dakota

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North Dakota's Health Department is seeking to learn more about COVID-19 immunity with the help of a $1.4 million federal grant and the aid of the state's two largest universities.

The effort involving the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University "will help us to better understand the level of population immunity to COVID-19 virus from natural infection, vaccination, or both, and to understand the COVID-19 experiences of the citizens of North Dakota,” State Health Officer Dr. Nizar Wehbi said in a statement.

The project will have two parts: surveys of a random sample of volunteer state residents, and surveys with blood and saliva sample collection of random residents in Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Participants will be recruited via invitations mailed to addresses at random this month.

“With the help of North Dakotans who participate in the survey, or testing, we will gain a deeper understanding of immunity and have valuable feedback from citizens that will shape public health response to COVID-19 or other public health emergencies in the future,” Wehbi said.

The project will unfold over the next 1 ½ years.

“We are doing this research to estimate how many COVID-19 infections there have been in North Dakota and to learn about how our communities may be protected against later infection of COVID-19, whether that protection is from natural infection, vaccination, or both,” UND Assistant Professor Amber Lyon-Colbert said in a statement.

Half of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant will go to each university to fund the research, according to Health Department spokeswoman Marie Moe.

"No one on the team will receive a direct payment or an increase in salary from the CDC for conducting this project," she said.

For more information, go to https://www.ndsu.edu/publichealth/outreach/covid_survey/.

Daily data

The omicron wave that has swept over North Dakota this week continued Friday, with 1,519 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases. That brought the total since the start of the workweek to nearly 6,000, and it's the first time since the height of the pandemic in November 2020 -- before the availability of vaccines -- that the daily case total has surpassed 1,000 for four straight days.

Active cases jumped by 21% from Thursday, to 4,487 statewide, with 763 in Burleigh-Morton counties.

The highly contagious omicron variant has been surging around the globe, and it swept into North Dakota this week, pushing up active COVID-19 cases since Monday by 175%.

The state's 14-day rolling test positivity rate jumped to 11.75% -- the highest since the peak days of the pandemic in late 2020. The state target of less than 5% was last met in mid-August. The rate at the start of the week was 7.74%.

But virus-related hospitalizations have not seen an increase parallel to cases, due to omicron often causing few or no symptoms. The state's coronavirus dashboard on Friday listed 118 COVID-19 hospitalizations, compared to 129 at the start of the week.

The most recent state data showed about 8% of staffed inpatient beds available statewide and about 5% 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 dashboard showed one newly confirmed virus-related death, raising North Dakota's pandemic toll to 2,028. The Health Department no longer publicly reports the county, sex and age range of newly confirmed deaths, but the dashboard death total for Burleigh County increased by one, to 283; Morton County's total is 131.

There have been 180,646 confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Dakota during the pandemic that began in March 2020, with 174,131 recoveries and 7,035 hospitalizations.

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 56.9%.

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 CDC also now recommends that adolescents ages 12-17 receive boosters as well, but the state's vaccine dashboard does not yet track that percentage.

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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