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Forecast predicts omicron wave could peak in North Dakota in early February

Coronavirus infections in North Dakota are climbing and could peak in early February, according to a prominent forecasting model. Testing indicates the fast-spreading omicron variant now is dominant in the state.

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Testing indicates the omicron variant of the coronavirus now is dominant in North Dakota. The peak of the omicron wave could happen in early February, according to a forecast.
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FARGO — The fast-spreading omicron variant has taken hold in North Dakota as a closely watched forecasting model is predicting the latest wave in the pandemic will peak in the state in early February.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that new daily infections in North Dakota will peak above 6,000 around Feb. 5. That level would be 2.4 times the model’s current estimate for 2,500 daily infections in the state.

The forecast predicts that reported COVID-19 deaths in North Dakota will reach 2,458 by April 1, up from the 2,028 deaths reported as of Friday, Jan. 7.

Active cases in North Dakota were ebbing in late December as the stubborn delta wave was fading but since have risen sharply, according to figures from the North Dakota Department of Health.

After reaching a recent low of 1,817 on Dec. 29, active cases spiked to 4,487 as of Friday — an increase of 146% in just over a week.

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As cases have risen sharply, a group that monitors pandemic conditions has upgraded North Dakota’s risk level from very high to severe, with 97.6 new daily cases per 100,000 statewide, according to Covid Act Now , an independent initiative whose partners include Georgetown University Medical School, Stanford Medicine and the Harvard Global Health Initiative.

The new case rate was much higher in Cass County at 141.4 per 100,000 population; Grand Forks County, 115.8; and Burleigh County, 113.2.

During North Dakota’s highest infection peak so far during the coronavirus pandemic, active cases reached 10,448 on Nov. 13, 2020, before vaccines became available. Active cases include new and existing infections.

If people were more conscientious about wearing masks, the omicron peak could be much lower, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s forecast model.

Instead of peaking in early February above 6,000, new daily infections could top out around 1,450 if 80% of the population wore masks. The current estimate for mask usage for North Dakota used by the forecasting model and compiled by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland is 14%.

The omicron variant has rapidly become the dominant strain in North Dakota. The new variant accounted for 202 of 368, or 54.9%, of samples tested by the state laboratory at the North Dakota Department of Health in a batch collected from Dec. 29 through Wednesday, Jan. 5.

In the previous batch, the omicron variant was found in 107 of 480 samples or 22.3% taken from Dec. 21 through Dec. 28.

Similarly, wastewater surveillance testing of more than 20 municipalities in North Dakota indicates that omicron emerged as the dominant variant, supplanting the delta variant, in a shift that occurred between Dec. 15 and Dec. 30, according to samples analyzed by the microbiology laboratory at North Dakota State University.

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In Fargo, the omicron variant accounted for 100% of the virus found in wastewater as of Dec. 30. But John McEvoy, professor of microbiology at NDSU, said that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any delta variant in the samples, but that it was at such low levels that it was undetected.

“Now things are really taking off,” he said of the spread of omicron. In fact, the omicron variant was dominant at most reporting locations around North Dakota by Dec. 20, McEvoy said.

“It was predominantly omicron at most locations, not all,” he said.

Earlier in the pandemic, the wastewater surveillance testing anticipated pandemic dynamics. Now, the wastewater testing results largely overlap with testing from nasal swabs.

“We’re measuring anybody who’s infected who’s contributing to that wastewater system,” including people who are asymptomatic and therefore unlikely to seek testing, he said.

The levels of coronavirus in wastewater don’t provide information that can help predict the course of the pandemic, but provide a snapshot in time, McEvoy said.

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