BISMARCK — As North Dakota's latest COVID-19 surge rages on, health officials are urging residents to get tested for the virus and seek approved treatments if they come down with it.
Dr. Josh Ranum, an internal medicine specialist in Hettinger, North Dakota, said those who test positive for COVID-19 or have been identified as a close contact should ask their medical providers if they are eligible to receive monoclonal antibody treatment.
Injecting antibodies into people with COVID-19 can decrease their viral load, offering them protection against serious illness and cutting the risk of hospitalization by 70%, Ranum said during a virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Ranum said the treatment can only be used on patients who have not been hospitalized and are not already suffering from low oxygen levels, noting the drugs become less effective the longer someone waits after receiving a positive test result.
Since health care providers started administering the treatment late last year, the drugs have become much more widely available and can now be given to patients even if they aren't considered to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Ranum said. The antibodies are approved to be given to those 12 and up, though medical providers are most likely to green-light the treatment for older residents and those with underlying conditions, such as obesity, diabetes or heart conditions. Ranum noted that even those without any underlying conditions should inquire about the treatment.
The antibodies have been widely accepted by patients and rarely cause any negative side effects, Ranum said. Small and large hospitals across the state have the capability to inject the antibodies, and state contact tracers can help put North Dakotans in touch with an injection facility after informing them of their positive COVID-19 test.
Ranum noted that COVID-19 vaccination is still the best way to prevent COVID-19, but the antibody treatment is a good option if it's too late for that.
“The monoclonal antibodies are great, but it’s kind of like figuring out which fire department to call, rather than preventing fires in the first place," Ranum said.
Kirby Kruger, director of North Dakota's Division of Disease Control, also urged residents to seek COVID-19 testing if they have symptoms of the illness, are identified as a close contact or attend a crowded event without having been vaccinated first. State testing sites and health care providers around the state offer both rapid and traditional PCR tests. Local testing sites can be found at www.health.nd.gov/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/testing-care/where-get-covid-19-test.
Both Ranum and Kruger discouraged residents from taking Ivermectin to treat COVID-19. There is no conclusive evidence the drug used to treat parasitic infections has any therapeutic effect for COVID-19 patients, and taking a version of the drug meant for animals can be dangerous, Kruger noted. A chorus of medical organizations and Merck, the drug's manufacturer, have said Ivermectin should not be used to treat COVID-19 until clinical trials determine whether it is useful.
Nationwide, calls to poison control centers from Ivermectin exposure have increase fivefold during the pandemic, but only two such calls have come in from North Dakota and neither ended in serious illness, Kruger said.
Statewide case rates
NEW CASES REPORTED TUESDAY, SEPT. 7: 272
ACTIVE CASES*: 2,590
DAILY POSITIVITY RATE: 9.7%
TOTAL KNOWN CASES THROUGHOUT PANDEMIC: 119,963
TOTAL RECOVERED THROUGHOUT PANDEMIC: 115,809
*The Department of Health often amends the number of active cases after they are first reported.
Though the southern United States continues to see the worst surges driven by the highly contagious delta variant, the upper plains and Rocky Mountain regions, including the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, have experienced some of the fastest-growing outbreaks in the country.
North Dakota's active cases decreased by 36 over the previous day, but testing levels dropped over the Labor Day weekend. More than 28% of the active infections are in residents under 20 years old.
Cass County, which encompasses Fargo, has the most known active cases in the state with 533. Burleigh County has 470 known cases as of Tuesday, and Grand Forks County has 211 infections. McKenzie County, which encompasses Watford City and has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, has the most active cases per capita.
The state's 14-day rolling average positivity rate was 6.4%, a slight decline since last week's high of 6.7%.
Cases have risen recently in nursing homes, though a 93% vaccination rate among residents has held infections in check even as the state's virus numbers grow exponentially. The state reported 13 resident cases and 55 staff cases on Tuesday.
ACTIVE HOSPITALIZATIONS: 99
TOTAL DEATHS: 1,564
Hospitalizations fell over the weekend, but health care providers have struggled lately to keep up rising admissions amid staffing shortages. Unlike last fall's COVID-19 peak, hospitals are dealing with many noncoronavirus patients on top of high-maintenance COVID-19 patients.
North Dakota had just 10 staffed intensive care beds available throughout the state as of Monday, along with 210 staffed inpatient beds. Bismarck's two hospitals had no available ICU beds and one inpatient bed, while Fargo's three hospitals had a combine five ICU beds and 18 inpatient beds. Grand Forks' Altru hospital had one ICU bed and no inpatient beds.
The bed capacity figures only reveal capacity at a single point in time, and hospitals may actually have more or fewer beds open than when they reported to the Department of Health, said Emergency Preparedness Chief Tim Wiedrich.
The department began releasing data last week about "breakthrough" cases in fully vaccinated residents. During the week of Aug. 29, the state reported just seven of 78 hospitalizations came in fully vaccinated residents, meaning nearly 90% of hospitalizations came in unvaccinated or undervaccinated residents.
FIRST DOSE ADMINISTERED*: 351,772 (53% of population ages 12 and up)
FULL VACCINE COVERAGE*: 323,778 (48.8% of population ages 12 and up)
*These figures come from the state's vaccine dashboard, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes vaccinations performed at federal sites, reports slightly higher vaccination rates.
North Dakota ranks in the bottom 10 states in vaccination rate, but fear of the delta variant has spurred a slight increase in vaccination rate over the last few weeks, state immunization coordinator Molly Howell said.
Even though a person can be infected with COVID-19 after they are fully vaccinated, health officials emphasize that those who are immunized often experience less severe symptoms and are far less likely to be hospitalized.
More information about vaccines can be found at www.health.nd.gov/covidvaccinelocator.
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