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COVID-19 cases spike at North Dakota long-term care facilities, but vaccines reduce severity

"We see through the data that when we have a high vaccination rate in facilities, absolutely we have less infection there," said North Dakota Long Term Care Association President Shelly Peterson. "It really does work. It really does make a difference."

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Getty Images / Special to Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — The number of COVID-19 cases has spiked in North Dakota's long-term care facilities throughout January, especially among staff members, as the highly contagious omicron variant continues to raise infections statewide.

The number of cases inside the state's nursing homes rose to 666 as of Thursday, Jan. 20, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. This is substantially higher than the approximately 50 active cases reported in December, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, during a virtual news conference on Thursday.

Although the omicron variant is putting additional pressure on North Dakota's nursing homes, COVID-19 vaccines have had a substantial impact on the number of resident deaths and case counts.

"The vaccine has literally saved our lives," Peterson said. "Many residents are alive today because of the vaccine."

More than half of North Dakota's COVID-19-related deaths encompass residents of nursing homes, according to the Department of Health. Peterson said the majority of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes occurred when the vaccine was not yet available.

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Around this time last year, the state had 880 long-term care deaths, Peterson said. Now, after the majority of residents have been vaccinated, North Dakota had marked 995 long-term care deaths as of Thursday.

Though the increase in cases from December to January is significant, Peterson said the 666 active infections within long-term care facilities is much lower than when infections were at their peak back in November 2020 — around 3,000 cases. She credits the difference to COVID-19 vaccines, booster doses and other mitigation strategies.

Staff in skilled nursing facilities are required to get the COVID-19 vaccine or present a health or religious exemption under President Joe Biden's federal mandate. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this vaccine mandate for medical facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid but struck down the mandate for large companies. North Dakota was one of a few dozen states that sued, calling Biden's vaccine mandates "unlawful."

Peterson on Thursday said about 82% of skilled nursing home staff in North Dakota were vaccinated, and unvaccinated staff must apply for an exemption or get their first dose by Feb. 14.

Many residents are alive today because of the vaccine.
Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association

"We see through the data that when we have a high vaccination rate in facilities, absolutely we have less infection there," Peterson said. "It really does work. It really does make a difference."

Long-term care facilities are seeing severe staffing shortages and staff burnout because of the emergence of the new coronavirus variant, which is also topped by the ongoing stress of a nearly two-year-long pandemic.

Statewide, facilities have seen employees quit throughout the pandemic, and the North Dakota Department of Health recently allocated $200,000 for a new program to incentivize new or former nursing home employees to work in long-term care, Peterson said.

The rising number of COVID-19 infections among nursing home staff and residents is concerning, but Peterson said she is grateful the vaccine is helping prevent people from developing severe symptoms.

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"We're caring for a very vulnerable population and they continue to be at risk ... but thank goodness for the vaccine," Peterson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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