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North Dakota confirms first cases of fast-spreading omicron variant

Of the four omicron variant cases identified on Monday, three were fully vaccinated but had not received booster shots, and one was not fully vaccinated, health officials said.

A graphic representation of the coronavirus
A coronavirus graphic. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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BISMARCK — North Dakota on Monday, Dec. 20, confirmed its first cases of the highly mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Four cases have been identified: two in Ward County and one each in Burleigh and Cass County, according to the state Department of Health.

None of the four individuals are hospitalized and they are all adults under 50 years of age, health officials said. Two had traveled together to a different state, while two had not traveled.

Of the four omicron variant cases identified on Monday, three were fully vaccinated but had not received booster shots, and one was not fully vaccinated. All four presented symptoms.

The two positive omicron cases that didn't travel out of state are not related and do not live near one another, which is an indication there is community spread of the omicron variant in North Dakota.

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"There's certainly more omicron circulating in our state than the four we have detected so far," Department of Health Disease Control Chief Kirby Kruger said during a virtual press conference Monday.

Kruger also said there is potential for the omicron strain to rapidly spread across North Dakota due to the state's low vaccination rate.

The omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa last month. Since then, it has spread all over the world in just a few weeks — faster than previous coronavirus strains, according to The New York Times.

Because the omicron variant has dozens of mutations compared to other strains, scientists believe it is more transmissible.

Researchers are still working to fully understand the omicron variant's severity, but early studies indicate available COVID-19 vaccines will likely prevent serious illness resulting from the omicron strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In light of omicron's presence in North Dakota, State Health Officer Nizar Wehbi urged residents to take COVID-19 precautions if they plan to attend gatherings for the holiday.

"As individuals are planning travel and hold holiday gatherings, it is of increased importance to take precautions to protect the health of those in our communities and of those we love," Wehbi said in a statement. "We encourage citizens to seek out testing before, and after holiday gatherings, and to use protective measures such as social distancing, sanitizing and masks. Those who are sick with any symptoms are urged not to attend gatherings."

Countries where the omicron variant is present are seeing "rapid increases" in cases, which puts extra pressure on already-strained hospitals, Kruger said Monday.

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The North Dakota Department of Health is urging fully vaccinated residents to seek a booster dose, because early research indicates that those who are fully vaccinated and boosted have "the highest level of protection against omicron," State Immunization Director Molly Howell said Monday.

Before Monday's announcement, North Dakota was one of only five states that had not reported any omicron cases, according to the CDC.

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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