Grand Forks County flu, COVID-19 vaccination rates low moving into winter

Nov. 30—GRAND FORKS — Rates of vaccinations for COVID-19 and influenza are low in Grand Forks County as cold and flu season sets in, but people still have time to get vaccinated against respiratory illnesses, says Shawn McBride, epidemiologist with Grand Forks Public Health.

"The more of us who get the vaccine, the less likely any of us are to be exposed and infected, so that helps everybody, but also if we are infected, it lessens the chances of it being anything serious," he said.

In Grand Forks County, 28.7% of the population ages 18 and under has received the influenza vaccine and 30.4% of the population older than 19 has received the vaccine.

About 13.2% of people in Grand Forks County have received the bivalent COVID-19 booster. Unlike the original COVID-19 vaccine series, the bivalent booster provides protection against Omicron variants of COVID-19. In Grand Forks County, 56.2% of people have completed the primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's important to update our immune system's wanted poster a little bit to let it know what COVID-19 looks like now," said McBride.

Dry winter air makes it easier for common respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) to spread and people tend to stay inside in rooms with less ventilation, said McBride.

So far, influenza positivity in Grand Forks County is still low at 8%. McBride says the flu is considered widespread at 10% positivity.

"We're moving in that direction but we still have what we would call sporadic activity for influenza," he said.

COVID-19 cases have been steady in Grand Forks County, but the community level is rated as low by the CDC at 118 cases per 100,000 people.

RSV is not a reportable condition, said McBride, meaning individual counties do not get counts of active cases. Instead, public health officials rely on state testing data from labs around the state. In North Dakota, 24.4% of cases are coming back positive, which McBride says is considered widespread.

Across the river in Polk County, the COVID-19 community level is also rated as low by the CDC, with a case rate of around 118 per 100,000 people. Minnesota has an RSV PCR test positivity rate of 23.4% and a flu positivity rate of 29.4%, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In Polk County, 10.6% of people have received all the doses of the COVID-19 vaccine they are eligible to receive, according to MDH, while 51.3% have completed the original vaccine series.

Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese did not respond to calls for comment about trends in RSV, COVID-19, influenza and vaccinations in the county.

There are many reasons why people have not continued to seek out COVID-19 vaccinations, says McBride, like not knowing they are eligible for a booster or not being aware of the added benefits. With COVID-19, immunity tends to wane over time and the virus changes, like the influenza virus.

"We need these yearly doses because influenza changes so much from one season to the other that our immune system needs the reminder to boost its ability to respond but also to recognize the virus when it needs to respond," he said. "That's why we have these regular, seasonal vaccines, and it's likely COVID is going to be a part of that."

Following hygiene practices like disinfecting surfaces and washing hands can also help reduce the spread of respiratory illness during the winter, said McBride.