Everything seemed to be going well. COVID cases were receding and vaccinations, though sluggish, were still ticking upward. It felt, for just a few months, like COVID was finally on the run.
But in hot spots across the country, the virus is roaring back, filling hospital wards and raising concerns that masks, social distancing and the loss of loved ones might once again become fixtures in American life.
And in Grand Forks, it’s probably only a matter of time before case counts turn upward, here, too. Michael Dulitz, a COVID data analyst with the Grand Forks Public Health Department, said there’s a better than 50% chance it will happen.
"I really don't see a way that we wouldn't see a significant increase in COVID cases in Grand Forks and a significant increase in hospitalizations,” Dulitz said this week. The silver lining, he said, is that Grand Forks hasn’t typically been as hard hit as some other cities regionally. But a surge in the virus, already spiking in the southeastern U.S., is probably headed here soon.
So how bad will it get?
"I think that kind of falls into the world of chaos theory,” Dulitz said. “There's a lot of variables at play that can significantly alter the outcome for Grand Forks County. What I can say is that, in the United States, hospitals in general are not set up for large surges of cases.”
Much of the recent surge is attributed to vaccination hesitancy, leaving vast swaths of the population unprotected against the virus. But so, too, is the rise of the “delta” variant of the virus, a remarkably contagious strain that increasingly accounts for new cases around the country.
"We're in a really tough spot. With each new variant right now, we're getting pushed further and further into a corner with having these low vaccination rates,” Dulitz said. “It's hard for us to see an end to COVID-19 without people coming out and getting vaccinated. I just can't reiterate that enough. If we don't want to see this impact our families ... vaccination is paramount in getting us there."
Right now, COVID is still at relatively low levels in Grand Forks County. According to the Heatlh Department’s dashboard, there had been a seven-day average of 2.4 new cases per day countywide as of Wednesday. That’s quite low, more or less on par with how things looked last summer. Exactly one year prior, that number was at 7.6 new cases per day.
But things can change quickly. By November, when the fall COVID spike was spreading through the community, that figure had soared to a weekly average of more than 170 cases per day.
Blue Weber is the executive director of Grand Forks’ Downtown Development Association, shepherding the growth and success of downtown’s walkable, urban businesses. He’s watched the delta variant with a lot of interest. Weber sees big events on the DDA’s calendar coming up, like the Downtown Street Fair, and he wonders what happens next.
“We have no idea what the next month is going to bring,” Weber said. “We have some of our biggest events coming up. … We feel safer doing outdoor events, but at the same time, if we're bringing in 15,000, 20,000 people into one section — well, that can have its own risks.”
Part of the difficulty now facing policymakers is not just lagging vaccination rates, but COVID fatigue — the growing frustration in many communities with the isolation that virus restrictions have placed on daily life. In Grand Forks especially, there are plenty of residents who have no interest in going back to masks and social distancing.
“I think we’re really ready to not even have to talk about it anymore,” Weber said. “So it scares me a little bit that there’s possibly another whole wave that we’re going to have to deal with.”
In a Wednesday interview, Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski said that though things can certainly change, he doesn’t foresee City Hall putting any virus restrictions back on daily life at this time.
Local leaders will continue closely monitoring the virus, Bochenski said. North Dakota had unusually low case counts for a long time before they turned sharply upward last year.
“Cases have been really low here in North Dakota and in this area,” Bochenski said. “But that’s kind of how it started last time. We were low for a long time, and then it made it here. We’re prepared and ready, but at this point, it’s about the vaccine. If you feel concern about the delta variant or any other variant, get vaccinated.”