North Dakota sees rise in COVID 19 infections this summer
The dominant omicron variant of the coronavirus is five times more infectious than the original strain, driving numbers higher than previous summers despite immunity from prior infection or
FARGO — The coronavirus pandemic continues to simmer through summer as infections are heightened by a new omicron variant that is five times more infectious than the original strain of the virus.
The North Dakota Department of Health in its most recent weekly summary reported 1,583 new cases and 93 COVID-19 hospital admissions for the week ending Thursday, July 7.
On July 8, 2021, there were 96 new cases in the week prior, and on July 2, 2020, there were 433 new cases in the week prior, according to the Department of Health website.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate that the BA.5 omicron variant accounts for more than half of cases — a sharp increase for an upstart variant that first was documented in the United States in June.
Dr. Avish Nagpal, the chief infectious disease specialist at Sanford Health, cautioned that publicly reported cases are grossly undercounted because many people do not bother to get tested because of mild symptoms or use at-home tests, which are not officially tallied.
“I think we are optimistic about the present, and the future is unknown,” Nagpal said. “We’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.”
Sanford no longer maintains a COVID-19 unit but uses isolation rooms for people infected with the coronavirus. Inpatient beds filled with COVID-19 patients recently have been running between five and 10 per day — but only two or three of those were admitted because of COVID-19.
The rest of the patients were admitted for other reasons, then were found to have the infection, Nagpal said. Very few require intensive care, he added.
Kirby Kruger, director of disease control for the North Dakota Department of Health, said given the underreporting, hospitalizations provide a good gauge of the pandemic’s severity.
The most active strains in the state are sub-lineages of the omicron variant, which are more infectious than previous strains. The pattern has been for the virus to grow in infectiousness as it mutates, so that has been one factor causing the uptick in cases.
Despite the lower hospitalization rate, cases have been “significantly high consistently over the last couple of months,” Nagpal said. “It’s not relenting. It’s kind of a mixed bag for us, mostly on the positive side.”
Dr. Bertha Ayi, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia Health, said cases this summer have been running atypically high, largely driven by the now-dominant BA.5 variant.
Laboratory testing has determined that each person infected by the BA.5 omicron variant can infect up to 18 others — more than five times the three people each person infected by the original Wuhan strain of the virus, she said.
Hospitalizations and deaths are much lower than before vaccines became available, Ayi said. Vaccinations, including booster doses, will continue to be important defenses against serious illness, Ayi and Nagpal said.
Besides the vaccines, effective treatments from monoclonal antibodies and antiviral medications such as Paxlovid are helping to keep people out of the hospital, both doctors said.
“Despite the high numbers, we are managing it well as an outpatient disease,” Nagpal said.
Because there are many fewer deaths, however, people are lulled into falsely thinking that the pandemic no longer poses a threat, Ayi said.
Typically, infections spike during the fall and winter, when people spend more time indoors in close proximity to others, both Ayi and Nagpal said.
“I think the vaccine is going to be an important tool in the next few months,” Ayi said, adding that people should remember to mask when in crowded indoor settings. “Vaccines have been hugely successful.”
Vaccination appears to provide more protection than previous infection against the new variants, although infections still can occur despite prior immunity, Ayi said.
Those who think COVID-19 no longer poses a threat should remember that between 5% to 10% of those infected require medical treatment for “long COVID,” Nagpal said.
“That’s the next phase of the pandemic,” he said. “The next challenge with the pandemic is ‘long COVID.’”
Forum News Service reporter Jeremy Turley contributed to this report.