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Cases are down in Grand Forks, but is COVID over? Not so fast, local health leaders say

Talk to anyone in Grand Forks Public Health, though, and that sense of relief comes with a note of caution.

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Wall's pharmacist Cody Varnson, center, with Vincent Loos, health program specialist with the Grand Forks Public Health Department, and Erin Beauclair, fourth-year pharmacy student at NDSU, operate a pop-up vaccination clinic in the parking lot of Cirrus Aircraft in Grand Forks Monday, June 28, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The sun is shining, temperatures are rising and case counts are way, way down. Summer is here. And as the regular rhythm of everyday life returns, it sure looks like this COVID stuff is all finished.

Local health leaders are relieved at the progress the country has seen in the last year, leaping from overwhelmed hospitals to a widely distributed vaccine. And there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Debbie Swanson, the Grand Forks Health Department director, said contact tracers — once flooded with work — are now able to not only keep up with the pace of tracking COVID, but they’re able to tend to other duties, too.

“We have people fully tasked with all the things we need to be doing in a way that's much more manageable,” Swanson said, adding that contact tracers are now helping with logistics for outreach, administrative tasks and writing reports.

Talk to anyone in Grand Forks Public Health, though, and that sense of relief comes with a note of caution. Assuming current vaccination rates hold steady, 60% of county residents won’t be fully vaccinated until approximately June of 2022, according to North Dakota data compiled by Grand Forks Public Health workers and reviewed by the Herald.

And because vaccinations are slowing, that could be an optimistic guess. Health leaders are still trying to peer into the coming months, curious how lagging enthusiasm will mix with an uptick in back-to-school vaccinations, for example.

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“The short answer is that COVID is not over yet,” Swanson said.

But public health warnings go deeper. Michael Dulitz, the local Health Department’s COVID data expert, points out that last year saw its ups and downs in case counts, too, making it hard to predict exactly what happens next.

“If we look at what we saw last summer, we also saw some pretty significant COVID decreases in June,” he said. “Until we get an idea of what our trajectory looks like, it's hard to say this is the end of COVID."

The result is a world re-emerging into normal life before the danger has definitively passed. That raises the possibility that COVID will become a regular presence in American life, like the flu.

“We’re seeing the same thing nationally and statewide and regionally,” said Haley Bruhn, who heads the health department’s coronavirus immunization program. “We’re just now in a much different situation than we were back in February, where we had lots of demand but not enough vaccine. Now we have lots of vaccine but not a lot of demand.”

It hasn’t helped, Dulitz said, that contact tracers are increasingly working with residents who aren’t receptive to public health professionals. The people who are glad to help contact tracers do their job are the kind who have already been vaccinated, Dulitz pointed out. That means that as the virus continues to burn through the community, those infected are increasingly likely to be people who are distrustful of public health professionals and naturally less cooperative.

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And as more contagious variants continue to circulate, Dulitz is worried Grand Forks might need 75% or 80% of the population vaccinated to reach herd immunity, broadly defined as the level at which a virus’ inability to circulate stamps it out.

That leaves the health department employees glad the virus is in decline, but certain that there’s still a ways to go. Centers for Disease Control officials are still recommending public mask use for the unvaccinated, even if the public urgency for wearing them is fading away — and herd immunity still feels a long ways off.

“I’ve used the word ‘hopeful,’” Bruhn said. “I’m not not optimistic. But I think we have a lot of work to do.”

The Herald’s Joe Bowen contributed to this report.

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