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Grand Forks County is about 12.7% of the way toward herd immunity goal

Grand Forks Public Health workers thus far have vaccinated about 5,300 Grand Forks County residents against coronavirus. The county aims to vaccinate about 41,000 people in all, a mark that purports to achieve herd immunity. At their current pace, they'd hit that mark sometime in October, but health department staff said they expect that rate to increase this spring and beyond.

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Samantha Ketterling, pharmacy manager at Thrifty White, draws a dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at Valley Senior Living. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

As Grand Forks Public Health’s COVID-19 vaccination effort nears the end of its second month, health department staff have fully vaccinated about 12.7% of the people they believe are needed to achieve “herd” immunity among Grand Forks County residents.

The North Dakota Department of Health reports that more than 15,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered countywide, but that figure includes the first and second doses that are both necessary for someone to be considered immune to the virus. The number of people in the county who have received both shots was 5,306 as of Wednesday, Feb. 10 – the most recent figure available before this article’s publication deadline – and health department staff hope to vaccinate a total of 41,671 people countywide. That goal represents about 60% of county residents and about 74% of residents who are medically eligible for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, neither of which is fit for people younger than 16 or 18, respectively, according to the drug manufacturers.

Grand Forks civic leaders consolidated COVID vaccines earlier this year to only the local health department and Altru Health System. The system they’ve set up – in which health department staff administer vaccines and hospital staff handle the waiting list, fill appointments and store vaccine doses – has been working smoothly, according to Haley Bruhn, the immunization program manager at Grand Forks Public Health.

“I think we’ve been really pleased to see how many people are interested in the vaccine and are coming out for it,” Bruhn told the Herald on Thursday. “We’ve had some cold weeks where people may be wanting to leave their home a little bit less, but uptake has still been good.”

The health department receives from the state between 800 and 1,100 vaccine doses each week, most of which are the Pfizer variety. Staff there are able to stretch those out, slightly, via so-called “angel” doses, which are small but significant amounts of the vaccine that remain after the number of doses indicated on the vaccine’s packaging have been used up – the rough equivalent of getting 13 ounces of soda in a can that claims 12 ounces on the label. In all, Grand Forks Public Health data analyst Michael Dulitz conservatively estimated that the county vaccinates about 1,200 people each week, a pace that, if it holds, would put it beyond the 60% threshold in October.

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But he and Bruhn both said they expect that vaccination pace to quicken this spring and beyond as more doses roll in per week.

“As we get production ramped up, as we get more entrants to the market with other vaccine options, I think we’re going to actually probably have things speed up a lot more than the way they’re going right now,” Dulitz said.

It’s unclear to what extent – or when – the county might receive vaccines in greater numbers, and when the number of people in each of the county’s many “tiers” of potential vaccine patients will actually head out to get the shots. Bruhn said it’s tough to estimate when the county would meet its vaccination goal.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said. “If it came out next week that we were getting 10,000 doses, we would have a model in place to deliver all of those so that they weren’t sitting on our shelves. So I think that's really our target, is just to have a very efficient, smooth system for distributing whatever we get, and when that gets us to 60% then we'll be there.”

The 60% threshold is based on a study by the American Medical Association that concluded a single person infected with the virus would infect an average of two to three people, assuming they took no precautionary measures. That, in the researchers’ estimation, puts the threshold for COVID-19 herd immunity somewhere between 50% and 67% of people in a given population, which would extinguish current outbreaks and interrupt transmission of the virus.

A North Dakota panel of doctors and public health workers put together a recommended order in which different groups of people should be vaccinated, and Grand Forks County health workers have been following that recommendation.

Currently, that means residents who are 65 or older , regardless of whether they have a high-risk medical condition or not. Earlier tiers called for health care workers, first responders, and older residents with certain conditions, including cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and more.

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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