Officials plead for North Dakotans to get vaccine as hospitals strain | INFORUM


BISMARCK — Cases of COVID-19 are once again on the rise in North Dakota. For the second time in as many years, a late summer spike has hit the state, and health care professionals are concerned that outbreaks could stretch hospitals to their limit as they did last fall.

Driven by the highly contagious delta variant, active COVID-19 infections have jumped more than fivefold in the last month, and growing positivity rates indicate the virus is increasingly prevalent in communities across the state. The 66 virus-related hospitalizations reported by the state Department of Health on Monday, Aug. 23, are the highest since January, and hospitals in Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks are already grappling with a lack of staffed beds.

The state reported just 23 available intensive care beds across the state on Monday, mirroring a crunch experienced by hospitals at the beginning of last fall's surge.

Insights gleaned from infection data make plain that the best solution to North Dakota's reemergent coronavirus problem is widespread vaccination, disease control chief Kirby Kruger said at a Bismarck news conference Monday. Unvaccinated residents have been about 15 times more likely to test positive for the virus than their vaccinated neighbors, he said. The extremely infectious nature of the delta variant means it's likely the vast majority of unvaccinated people will come down with the virus in the coming months, which could further burden the health care system, Kruger noted.

Officials plead for North Dakotans to get vaccine as hospitals strain | INFORUM

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for ages 16 and up on Monday should give holdouts even more assurance that the jab is right for them, said state immunization coordinator Molly Howell.

"Over 360 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the United States to date, (and) 686,630 doses have been given in North Dakota alone, so I hope North Dakotans who are not yet vaccinated now feel confident in the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines," Howell said.

Howell noted that North Dakota has the benefit of being able to learn from the hard-hit southern U.S., where low vaccination rates led to high case and hospitalization rates.

"Now is the time to get vaccinated," Howell said with urgency in her voice.

Several miles from the Health Department news conference, a few dozen protestors gathered outside CHI St. Alexius hospital in downtown Bismarck to oppose mandatory vaccinations. Many of the cars driving past honked in support.

Coty Sicble, a chiropractor based in Lincoln, said she believes Monday's FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine was railroaded through as a pre-planned "money grab," and a measure to convince more people to accede to mandates.

"This is just a push to get people to be okay with it," she said, calling the administration of COVID-19 vaccines "a crime against humanity."

Sicble said she hopes protests against the shot in the Bismarck area pick up momentum and local health care workers walk out from their hospitals over recently announced vaccine mandates.

At least a handful in the crowd outside CHI St. Alexius on Monday wore scrubs and said they were employees at the hospital.

"We'll absolutely be fired," said Becky Erickson, a psych technician and 17-year employee of St. Alexius, of the lengths she's willing to go to avoid taking the shot.

Officials plead for North Dakotans to get vaccine as hospitals strain | INFORUM

Angel Quintero (far left) and Becky Erickson (third from the left) were among the CHI St. Alexius employees who joined the anti-vaccine mandate protest outside their hospital on Monday. Adam Willis / The Forum

"I'm prepared to be walked off by security," added Angel Quintero, also a psych technician, who said she has been trying to avoid a mandatory flu vaccination in her workplace. In addition to holding a job at St. Alexius, Quintero said she works at a nearby nursing home that has mandated the vaccine.

Many of her colleagues have similar positions on the vaccine, Quintero said, though they may not be prepared to openly protest their employer's policy.

"But they are for sure ready to walk away and get new jobs," she said. "Jobs that won't require the vaccine."

Statewide case rates

  • NEW CASES REPORTED MONDAY, AUG. 23: 105
  • ACTIVE CASES: 1,508
  • DAILY POSITIVITY RATE: 11.3%
  • TOTAL CASES THROUGHOUT PANDEMIC: 114,915
  • TOTAL RECOVERED THROUGHOUT PANDEMIC: 111,856

North Dakota's active cases increased by just nine over the previous day, though low testing on weekends often affects the number of positive cases reported on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Cass County, which includes Fargo, leads the state with 347 known active cases. Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reports 263 active cases, while Ward County, which includes Minot, has 184 active infections. Rural Golden Valley and Emmons counties have the most COVID-19 cases per capita, though Stark County, home to Dickinson, places third in the category.

Cases are also increasing in nursing homes, though the rate of infection remains low in the facilities where most residents and many staff are fully vaccinated. As of Monday, nine residents and 36 staff members are considered active cases, including five residents and 13 staff at Bismarck facilities operated by Missouri Slope.

The state's rolling 14-day average positivity rate for its COVID-19 cases sits at 5.7%, nearly triple the rates seen a month ago.

Hospitalizations, deaths

  • ACTIVE HOSPITALIZATIONS: 66

  • DEATHS: 0

  • TOTAL DEATHS: 1,551

Hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last month, though they remain well below the November peak of 332. The state has reported nine COVID-19 deaths this month — one of the lowest fatality rates of the pandemic.

Medical experts are hopeful high vaccination rates among older North Dakotans will mean fewer deaths and hospitalizations than the state saw last year. However, health care professionals say staffing concerns could hamper hospitals' ability to handle another significant surge in cases.

A state database shows 23 staffed intensive care beds and 242 regular inpatient beds are available across the state, but several urban hospitals are struggling with capacity issues.

Fargo's three medical centers — Sanford, Essentia and the VA Hospital — had a combined 11 available ICU beds and nine inpatient beds as of Monday. Bismarck's two hospitals had a combined three open ICU beds, while Grand Forks' Altru hospital had just one open ICU bed. The bed capacity figures are only a point in time, and hospitals may actually have more or fewer beds open than when they reported to the Department of Health, said Emergency Preparedness Chief Tim Wiedrich.

Vaccinations

  • FIRST DOSE ADMINISTERED*: 339,393 (51.4% of population ages 12 and up)

  • FULL VACCINE COVERAGE*: 314,102 (47.5% of population ages 12 and up)

Statewide vaccination rates slowed to a crawl in April, though slight increases earlier this month give jab promoters hope that more residents are seeking the shot in the face of the delta variant.

The health department urges residents 12 and older to get vaccinated and seek information at www.health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator.

*These figures come from the state's vaccine dashboard, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes vaccinations performed at federal sites, reports slightly higher vaccination rates.

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