BISMARCK — COVID-19 variants are spreading in North Dakota, but officials cannot say exactly to what extent.
At least 219 cases of COVID-19 variants have been identified in the state, said Kirby Kruger, the North Dakota Department of Health’s disease control director.
However, this is only a snapshot of a likely larger number of COVID-19 variant cases in North Dakota, Kruger said, because the state is only analyzing a small percentage of positive COVID-19 tests for variants.
For a COVID-19 case to be determined as a variant, health officials perform genomic sequencing on a positive case to analyze its genetic makeup. This process is not done for every COVID-19 test in the state, and the health department is prioritizing performing genomic sequencing for patients who end up in the hospital from COVID-19 or who have been vaccinated against the virus and still test positive for it later, which is also known as a breakthrough case.
“We’re being somewhat selective in who we’re testing for variants,” Kruger said. “I think one of the things we’re interested in is … are the variants likely to lead to hospitalization and are those breakthrough cases because of variants or not?”
Kruger said the Department of Health so far has found 10 people who have been hospitalized because of a variant and there are 16 breakthrough cases where a variant was identified.
Because the state is only genome sequencing certain tests, it is not enough to predict how many variant cases could be in the state, he said.
For North Dakota and other nearby states, like South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than half of the COVID-19 cases identified within the last two weeks were caused by the variant first found in the United Kingdom.
As the coronavirus continues to percolate through communities, it mutates to create new strains. The CDC says these strains are easily transmissible, and it has identified five variants of concern that have originated from the U.K., South Africa, Brazil and California.
Two studies published this week found that the Pfizer vaccine is extremely effective against the U.K. and South Africa variant, with one of the studies finding that the Pfizer vaccine is 97.4% effective in preventing severe symptoms against all COVID-19 strains. It found the vaccine was 100% effective in preventing worse outcomes against the U.K. and South Africa strains.
Because the variants are evolving quickly and COVID-19 vaccination rates have plateaued in recent weeks, health officials are saying “herd immunity,” or the phenomenon in which enough people in a community become immune to a disease so a virus no longer can spread, may not be achievable in the foreseeable future, if ever.
Kruger encouraged North Dakotans to get vaccinated to help slow the virus' spread and prevent severe outcomes.
"It helps to protect the people that they are in close contact with that they care about, and it will help reduce the (number of) people who are being hospitalized and the people who are dying," Kruger said.
Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.