Grand Forks' COVID metrics continue to fall after Thanksgiving
COVID-19 metrics have been trending downward for weeks in Grand Forks County. A spike in cases after the traditionally travel-intensive Thanksgiving holiday has yet to materialize.
At least for the moment, the spread of coronavirus in Grand Forks County has not quickened after Thanksgiving.
The holiday worried health experts because, traditionally, it means people travel far and wide to spend a day or two -- or at least a meal -- relatively close to one another. That could mean another wave of cases because the virus can easily spread in those conditions before someone takes it home, where it can spread further.
But, as of Monday, that wave had yet to appear: countywide COVID-19 metrics continued their downward trend , and a few data points indicate that it could be because fewer people traveled or went to Thanksgiving celebrations. About 35 out of the approximately 700 people who’ve tested positive for the virus in Grand Forks County reported attending a Thanksgiving gathering, and most of those gatherings were among five or fewer people, according to Michael Dulitz, a Grand Forks Public Health data analyst who presented it Monday to Grand Forks City Council members.
That’s a relatively small number for a big day on many Americans’ calendars, but it’s tough to compare it to other holidays that have taken place during the pandemic because, Dulitz said, public health workers didn’t prepare for earlier holidays the same way they did for Thanksgiving.
“We were forward thinking and we decided that we were going to make sure that we were collecting the data in this manner,” he said. “With Labor Day, Fourth of July, it's less indoors, sit down meal-based, versus Thanksgiving.”
There’s other data that indicates many Grand Forks-area residents stayed home over the holiday: about 80% fewer people than normal headed to retail or recreation spots on Thanksgiving day, countywide, and about 30% more than normal were in a residential spot, according to aggregated Google location data. Public health officials sometimes refer to that “mobility” data to get a sense of how much people are participating in day-to-day life, but it comes with a caveat: the company sets the baseline for those statistics with data from early in 2020, not from the same time in 2019, which means those figures compare the holiday to a typical Thursday rather than a typical Thanksgiving.
“There may be a potential for maybe a small spike if people were delaying their Thanksgiving holidays or activities surrounding Thanksgiving, such as Black Friday shopping or things like that,” Dulitz told the Herald. “So there might be potentially something relatively small, but the trends are all pointing in the right direction.”
But Joshua Wynne, the dean at the UND medical school who also is North Dakota’s top health strategist and in charge of the state university system’s response to the pandemic, worries about declaring victory prematurely.
“People may have let their guard down after Thanksgiving, and it may be a few more days ... or even up to a week until we can be really sure that there's not going to be a post-Thanksgiving resurgence,” he told the Herald. “But I think it is wonderful news of the direction that the numbers are going.”
And, beyond the for-now absence of a holiday spike, those numbers have been trending downward for weeks.
The metrics that public health workers use to gauge the virus’ spread -- “active” cases, the percentage of tests that come back positive, and a few more -- have all fallen steadily since mid-November, and that’s been cause for optimism among Grand Forks health experts.
“We were looking at exponential increases in the number of cases. We were looking at, potentially, by Christmas having over 18,000 cases in the community,” Dulitz told Grand Forks City Council members on Monday. “Those predictions were based off of the trajectory we were looking at at that time. Fortunately, things have changed and our trajectory is changing quite significantly.”
North Dakota health officials enacted a slew of epidemiological precautions in mid-November, including a statewide mask requirement and mandatory early closures for many businesses. Those measures could still take time to kick in , statistically speaking, but Dulitz hypothesized that they could also be one reason for the steady decline in COVID figures, in part because they reduce the number of “incidental” exposures that could help spread the virus, such as running into a friend at a restaurant.
The countywide Grand Forks Health Officer’s Dashboard still indicates that the virus poses a “high” risk for people here, but it’s slipped further and further away from the “severe” risk category in which Grand Forks County was stuck for several weeks in the fall and early winter. That gauge considers new COVID-19 cases and tests per capita, the percentage of tests that come back positive, the rate at which new cases are popping up, and a self-assessment from Altru Health System staff of the hospital’s ability to handle coronavirus patients.
Dec. 7 Grand Forks Health Officer Dashboard by Joe Bowen on Scribd