Dec. 7—Grand Forks County's COVID-19 death toll reached triple digits this week.
The county recorded its 99th and 100th deaths from a novel coronavirus on Tuesday, Dec. 7, about 21 months after the first case was confirmed in North Dakota. But the comparative death toll here is much lower than ones recorded in other parts of the state.
Grand Forks County's 100 COVID deaths put it fourth in total deaths recorded among North Dakota counties, according to state data, but, after accounting for population, it falls to the sixth lowest among the state's 56 counties.
Here, 133.9 people per 100,000 have died from COVID-19 as of Monday. In Cass County, that figure was 145.2 people, and in Burleigh and Ward counties it was 269.2 and 327.5 people, respectively. Michael Dulitz, the COVID-19 data and analytics leader at Grand Forks Public Health, attributed that to a larger proportion of people in relatively urban and easterly parts of North Dakota following preventative steps to protect themselves from the virus: more vaccinations, hewing to guidelines put forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and so on.
"I think it would probably be a matter of human behaviors," he said.
And vaccination data from Grand Forks' "peer" metro counties at least partly backs up that assertion. There's a loose correlation between vaccination rates and death rates among
Ward, Burleigh, Grand Forks, and Cass counties, where 37.1%, 45.8%, 53%, and 58.8% of residents were considered "fully" vaccinated as of Dec. 5, respectively.
Vaccination rates rise
In Grand Forks County, the rate at which people are getting COVID-19 shots has increased since late September as the federal government OK'd vaccines and booster shots for increasingly large segments of the population. About 12,300 Grand Forks County residents have received a booster shot thus far.
And, as of Dec. 5, 39,063 county residents were fully vaccinated, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Health. That's about 53.% of the county's population. Another 3,283 people are "partially" vaccinated, which means they've received the first of two necessary doses of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine but have yet to receive the second. If or when they do, that would put Grand Forks County about 1,500 people short of the threshold at which public health administrators believe the county might achieve "herd" immunity from the virus, a condition in which it would run out of figurative room to spread because enough people have been immunized.
That threshold represents 60% of Grand Forks County's population, but it's also a relatively conservative mark to hit. More research and more contagious strains of the virus suggest that the actual threshold for herd immunity may be more like 80%.
The "omicron" variant of the virus, which was first detected in Minnesota last week in a man who had recently traveled to New York City, is still a question mark. It's unclear if that strain of the virus is more contagious than others or if it produces harsher symptoms than its predecessors. It's also not clear how much protection existing vaccines can offer against it.
"That's kind of the million dollar question right now," Dulitz said.