GRAND FORKS — It’s been a brutally long year of COVID in North Dakota, where total cases per capita — stretching back to last year — still lead the nation.

But North Dakotans are vaccinated, there’s one heartening statistic to watch: Grand Forks County is among the most-vaccinated, per capita, of any of the state’s biggest urban centers.

About 10.7% of Grand Forks County residents were totally vaccinated — with two shots — according to Health Department data as of Feb. 24. Cass County was close behind, at 9.0%, while Ward was at 7.4%. Burleigh and Morton counties’ combined rate was at about 8.6%.

The state as a whole was at about 8.7% full vaccination, meaning Grand Forks County is running a full percentage point ahead of the North Dakota average.

Michael Dulitz, the county health department’s COVID data analyst, said the success likely comes from teaming up with Altru to distribute vaccines, streamlining efforts and giving residents one convenient place to get a shot. He also praised the hardworking Health Department workers; he credits them with a savant-like ability to juggle the complex logistics of countless vaccines for countless patients, all with disparate timelines for doses.

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The light is appearing at the end of the COVID tunnel, and perhaps even growing brighter. But for now, Dulitz still hesitates to say how soon the magic number — 60% vaccinated, or herd immunity — actually arrives.

“I calculated it for (a Forum News Service reporter) a couple weeks ago, and we talked about potentially October,” Dulitz said. But even since then, the pace of vaccinations has continued to increase. “I think we can expect vaccinations to continue to ramp up pretty significantly over the next couple of months.”

Michael Dulitz, of Grand Forks. (UND photo)
Michael Dulitz, of Grand Forks. (UND photo)

That’s good news, but doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on social distancing. The same health department report that shows surging vaccinations also frets over “steady local hospitalizations,” as well as a bottleneck in vaccine production and shipment, preventing needles from getting in arms faster.

One problem arose earlier this month, when a winter storm gripped much of the country. Dulitz, speaking to the Grand Forks City Council earlier this month, warned that a mass-vaccination event would have to be canceled as doses bound for Grand Forks had become snarled in winter weather. Speaking this past week, Dulitz said he expected those 400 previously scheduled doses to be administered before week’s end.

And as vaccinations continue, Grand Forks and North Dakota will likely have to grapple with a new problem: People who refuse to take the vaccine. Haley Bruh, the Health Department’s immunization program manager, said that issue might arise once supply increases and primary care physicians are offering patients the chance to get a dose. But for now, it hasn’t arrived yet.

"Right now, all our vaccine appointments are made on request,” she said. “Right now, we're only getting people who want the vaccine. People aren't calling us to say they don't want it."

So here’s the ultimate question: How long until the pandemic is over?

"There's a lot of factors that would go into articulating that answer,” Bruhn said. “But I think that what we've seen is the vaccine uptake is good. People are very interested in taking the vaccine and being vaccinated. At the same time, we're seeing vaccine allocation and supply increase."

Even if there’s no precise date, then, there are things to feel hopeful about.

“I'm feeling optimistic, if that tells you anything,” Bruhn said.