Herd immunity? Why North Dakota’s coronavirus cases dropped so much

North Dakota, once a major coronavirus hotspot, has seen its situation improve significantly in recent weeks and experts say it could be because of a number of reasons, including behaviour change and herd immunity in certain populations.

Last November, North Dakota peaked at 10,209 active cases. As of Wednesday, the state was reporting 1,051 active cases.

Dr. Joshua Wynne, vice-president of health affairs at the University of North Dakota, said the drop in cases is most likely the result of more people following public health guidelines.

“The most likely possibility is that our behaviour changed,” Wynne said.

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However, he’s not ruling out another, although less likely, possibility.

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“It’s possible in certain pockets that enough people got sick with COVID that we now have what we call herd immunity,” he said.

Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease specialist at North Dakota State University, agreed.

While Carson can’t pinpoint the exact reason for the state’s improving situation, he said it’s likely because of a combination of behaviour changes and herd immunity among certain groups, such as the younger bar-going crowd.

“Our circles might be more like pockets or networks of higher or lower risk, and maybe many of the highest risk-taking networks have kind of burned through it,” Carson said. “That’s a hypothesis … We’re actually looking at ways to assess that.”

In November, when North Dakota hospitals were under “enormous pressure,” the state announced it would be allowing health-care workers who are COVID-19-positive, but asymptomatic, to continue working in coronavirus units.

Read more: COVID-19-positive health workers in North Dakota can work amid spike

It was around that time, Carson believes, many people began taking the pandemic more seriously.

“It wasn’t really until our hospitals were clearly stretched to the breaking point that everybody knew somebody who was sick, in the hospital, dead,” he said. “Everybody knew a nurse who was working in the hospital telling the horror stories of what they were trying to do.”

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The North Dakota Medical Association had been calling on Gov. Doug Burgum to impose a statewide mask mandate.

On Nov. 14, a mask mandate went into effect, but it expired on Jan. 18 and was not extended, although some counties have decided to keep one in place.

“I’d like to see that if cases start to go up here again that the governor would reconsider,” North Dakota Medical Association vice-president Dr. Josh Ranum said.

Read more: U.S. sees drop in coronavirus cases, deaths as race against new strains amps up

Even though the coronavirus situation has improved in North Dakota, experts agree it’ll still be a while before the state can declare victory.

“It’s going to be a long time before I use the phrase, ‘We’re out of the woods,’” Ranum said.

As of publishing, the state has reported 97,305 coronavirus cases and 1,417 deaths.

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