North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s message was clear at a Wednesday, Sept. 1,COVID-19 press conference: COVID-19 vaccines work, but the state’s hospital capacity is being strained by unvaccinated individuals contracting the Delta variant.
For the week of Aug. 22 — the most recent data available — 77 of 89 people hospitalized in North Dakota due to COVID-19 were not fully vaccinated, Burgum said.
Approximately 10.2 percent of staffed beds were available at the time of the press conference.
“Part of the reason we’re having this press conference today is to help people understand we do have a hospital capacity issue that is present and looming,” Burgum said.
COVID-19 cases are occurring in greater numbers in western North Dakota, which has lower vaccination rates than the eastern half of the state. Cases in the west present a problem for hospitals and COVID-19 patients as most of the state’s hospital capacity resides in the east, Burgum said.
“Again you can see the trendline in hospitalization is not waiting until we’re deeper into the fall. There were theories last year, that’s when we got indoors, and there was more potential transmissible moments that were happening … the highly contagious nature of Delta driving up more positive cases in August — that’s the leading indication — followed by more hospitalizations,” Burgum said.
At the time of the press conference there were 135 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19. On Sept. 1 of last year, 71 individuals were hospitalized for COVID-19.
North Dakota, once a leader in the country for vaccination rates, has slipped to 42nd place in the country. Approximately 52.2 percent of the population 12 years of age and older has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re in the bottom 10 in terms of vaccination and it is what it is. But it does create more opportunities for the Delta variant to infect, creates more opportunities for the Delta variant to evolve and it certainly is a factor in what's driving our hospitalizations,” Burgum said.
One in 180 fully vaccinated North Dakota citizens have tested positive for COVID-19. One in 16 unvaccinated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19.
Burgum stuck with his administration's messaging throughout the pandemic that protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 is a matter of personal responsibility.
“Understand that folks have a choice. They can choose to be vaccinated or they can choose to not be. With the spread of COVID, choosing to not be is also perhaps a choice that at some point you’re going to get COVID,” Burgum said.
Leaders from the five largest healthcare providers in North Dakota spoke about what they’re seeing in their facilities during the current surge in COVID-19 cases. They urged North Dakota residents to follow CDC guidelines and get vaccinated to help reduce the strain on their facilities.
Janice Hamscher, chief nursing officer at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, North Dakota, spoke about her and her staff’s experience with COVID-19 since the vaccine rollout began last February.
“For those individuals that we have seen require hospitalization for COVID, 91 percent of them were unvaccinated. Today we have 10 inpatients hospitalized for COVID, only one is vaccinated. That continues to be a trend that we’re seeing ... ,” Hamscher said.
In Grand Forks County, the 14-day rolling average positivity rate is the highest it's been since April and there is no indication those numbers will come down, she said.
“We really don’t have unlimited resources. I’m making a plea for individuals to really take personal responsibility to protect yourself from COVID by getting the vaccine. Our staffed beds are significantly limited,” Hemscher said.
Dr. Richard Vetter, chief medical officer at Essentia Health, said hospital capacity is going to be a challenge in the coming months relative to last year.
“At the end of June we were down to just one or two inpatients per day at Essentia Health Fargo. Over the past couple weeks we’ve actually been close to 10 percent of our inpatients now are COVID positive. We’ve had to decline transfers from hospitals seeking higher levels of care. Nearly everyday we’re at capacity …” Vetter said.
Vetter said he’s concerned that a small number of ICU patients could stress their health system.
“It (the COVID-19 vaccine) has a very high effectiveness rate and we encourage everyone to use vaccination as well as all other social protective measures to slow the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Nizar Wehbi, North Dakota’s state medical officer.