GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Twelve fully-vaccinated residents of Valley Senior Living in Grand Forks have asymptomatically tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, according to VSL President Garth Rydland.

In an update sent to families of VSL residents, Rydland called the recent post-vaccination infections — called "breakthrough cases" by public health workers — frustrating to all. However, with all 12 residents now fully recovered or well on their way to recovery, Molly Howell, immunization program manager for the North Dakota Department of Health, said that in a way, these breakthrough infections show that vaccines are working.

"What we're seeing is that people who have a breakthrough infection are much less likely to have severe disease," she said, noting that in a recent comparable outbreak of fully-vaccinated residents in a Kentucky nursing home, positive cases were mostly asymptomatic or only mildly sick. "So we're not seeing right now what we've seen previously with long-term care outbreaks — the high death rates and high hospitalization rates."

It's unclear whether a COVID-19 variant is to blame for the outbreak, but even without variants, some breakthrough infections are to be expected, she said.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been lauded as remarkably effective by the public health community. Both are roughly 95% effective at preventing infection, and even more effective at preventing serious illness and death. That effectiveness appears to be somewhat diminished in some nursing homes. For instance, in the Kentucky outbreak, detailed in a CDC study published on April 21, the CDC estimates that the vaccine was roughly 87% effective due to the fact that many residents' immune systems are less robust when compared to the general public.

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In total, 166 North Dakotans have been diagnosed with breakthrough infections out of 229,226 people who have received both doses of the vaccine two weeks ago or longer.

Out of the 12 Valley Senior Living residents who have tested positive, nine received their positive test in the last two weeks, Rydland said. Ten of those residents have concluded their active infection and two are currently being treated in the COVID-19 care area at Valley Senior Living on Columbia. Two staff members also recently tested positive. Visitation to the impacted facilities — Valley Senior Living on Columbia and Woodside Village at Valley Senior Living on 42nd — is temporarily suspended. Staff continue to conduct weekly COVID-19 testing events, Rydland said.

"Fortunately, at the end of the day, the vaccine is about trying to do its best to eliminate hospitalizations, severe illness and death," Rydland said. "And it is doing that, and quite successfully for the residents who have been the hardest hit in our entire country throughout this pandemic."

One of the staff members who tested positive was fully vaccinated, while the other was not. Rydland said that since February, roughly 1% of staff members who were fully vaccinated have tested positive for COVID-19, while about 7% of staff who are unvaccinated tested positive in the same timeframe. Howell said that statewide, about 60% of long-term care facility staff have received both doses of the vaccine, and that number is continuing to rise.

"It's important that everyone needs to be vaccinated, not just people who are elderly and are at high risk," she said. "That's why when we talk about — I mean, people call it 'herd immunity,' I like to call it 'community immunity' — the more people get vaccinated in a community, the less the disease is going to spread, and the less likely there's going to be exposure in long-term care settings and breakthrough infections."