State health officials provided an update Friday on Oklahoma’s situation as COVID-19 case counts creep up and the more easily transmitted Delta variant becomes the predominant form of the virus.
A band of states with elevated infection levels stretches across the center of the country and into the deep South.
Oklahoma’s neighboring states Missouri and Arkansas had elevated daily case counts over the past 60 days, according to the Mayo Clinic, with Missouri leading the nation in average daily cases and cases per 100,000 in population.
Oklahoma is at a lower, but still elevated level, with an average of six cases per 100,000.
The need to avoid complacency and battle “COVID fatigue” was a theme Oklahoma State Commissioner of Health Col. Lance Frye returned to again and again during the briefing.
“I know everyone is burned out and wants to enjoy their summer,” he said.
But the best way to do that and stay safe is to get vaccinated, he repeatedly said. People who choose not to vaccinate should use other mitigation strategies like wearing masks when around other people and choosing outdoor venues with good air circulation if they’re going to gather.
The state is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in areas where fewer people have been vaccinated, especially in the eastern part of the state, he said. Vaccination rates are particularly low among people 12-34 years of age, who are less likely to become seriously ill but remain at risk from the virus, especially its variant strains.
Hospitalizations are also on the rise.
Frye said there were 177 admissions over the past three days, with 58 in ICU and 22 pediatric cases.
The numbers are similar to where they were in late June of 2020 or early in April of this year.
Totals are small compared to the spikes Oklahoma previously experienced and the cases are currently concentrated more in rural areas – specifically northeast and southwest parts of the state – where vaccination rates are lower. But there is concern it will begin to spread into more heavily populated urban areas.
The majority of new cases reported in late June and early July were the Delta variant, State Epidemiologist Jolieanne Stone said.
Although 1.5 million of Oklahoma’s estimated 3.97 million residents had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, vaccination rates need to increase, Fry emphasized.
“That really is our ticket to stopping this,” he said. “… It protects not only you but the people around you. A significant percentage of the population is not vaccinated. We’re not going to get rid of it. We will have to deal with it like the flu, year after year.”
The state initially saw a good response but then it fell off, he said. There is more than enough vaccine to allow anyone who wants the shot to get it. People who were motivated to get the vaccine have already done so, but that leaves a large group that is still reluctant or doesn’t want the vaccine.
OSDH is tracking about 1,500 individuals who received their first dose but missed their second. Staff is reaching out to remind them and to ensure information on second doses is entered into the state system.
OSDH has recorded the lowest vaccination rates in the eastern half of the state, although officials said it’s possible people in some areas were vaccinated by tribal health providers. Tribes got their supply directly from the federal government and it was tracked differently.
At least for a while, state officials couldn’t see the federal allocations. The flow of information is getting better but it still isn’t as detailed as state officials would like, Frye said.
Health officials are expecting to see an increase in infections following 4th of July holiday gatherings.
They encourage anyone who begins to display COVID-19 symptoms to get tested, even if they have been vaccinated.
Testing helps them track not just infection numbers, but the geographic spread. Not enough testing is happening and not enough tests are being sent to the state lab for sequencing to determine which variant caused the infection.
Submitting a sample for sequencing requires extra work and submissions from labs and medical facilities fell off once they were no longer required to send them to the state lab, Frye said. After OSDH sent a request, several large labs and medical systems resumed submitting samples. That provides a greater number of samples but still doesn’t give a good sampling from throughout the state.
He said the state lab also isn’t receiving negative tests from labs and medical facilities, which throws off positivity percentage calculations.
OSDH is looking at rules to address that.
Fry said there is no discussion at the state level about instituting emergency orders or taking steps like calling for masks in schools. There has been some discussion about what types of incentives might be effective and appropriate to encourage vaccinations but no decisions have been made.
Getting vaccinated is the key to returning to normal life, he said. If people want to return to school in-person, as planned, or enjoy football in the fall, they should get vaccinated.