OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is still every reason to remain cautious, Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma, said during a press conference Thursday.
“There is still a lot of COVID-19 in the United States,” Bratzler said. “I think there is a lot of good news right now in Oklahoma around COVID-19. Oklahoma reported 413 new cases today that brought the 7-day rolling average up only slightly to 325 new cases per day on average for the last week.”
Testing continues to fall in the state, and just over 2 percent of the specimens tested this week came back positive for COVID-19, according to Bratzler.
“We were higher than 19 percent positive in December, so that’s really good news and tells me we have much less community spread of the virus,” Bratzler said. “And hospitalizations have largely plateaued, we’re staying right around 200 people a day.”
Despite these encouraging signs, Bratzler urged caution going forward. Particularly for Comanche County.
“Perhaps the county that is seeing the most new cases right now is Comanche County down in Southwest Oklahoma,” Bratzler said.
Comanche County has seen a daily average of 34 new cases in the last 7 days. By comparison, Tulsa county has seen only 7 new cases per 100,000 population over the last 7 days, and nearby Jackson County has seen only 4.
“We did see a bump last week,” Comanche County Health Department Regional Director Brandie Combs said. “We had 286 cases reported last week and 238 reported this week. That’s not a rolling average just a straight week-to-week look. But I will tell you if you look back in February and January, we were seeing 700 cases a week.”
The bump was expected coming off of spring break, Combs said. As she and other members of the health department look at the numbers and begin to make comparisons, she can make out patterns in the data.
“This time last year we got into the summer months and people started to get tired of COVID,” Combs said. “We let our guard down too soon, and going into the fall we saw stuff go off the rails.”
As we once again look toward the summer months, Combs urges Comanche County residents to remain vigilant.
“I know most people don’t want to hear this, but we have to still be careful because we have a significant population of people that have not been vaccinated,” Combs said. “I also always want to remind people that vaccines are wide open. If you’re 16 or older, you can get vaccinated. We are taking walk-ins at all of our clinics.”
“We are still seeing more than 2,000 new Oklahomans a week diagnosed with COVID-19, and we will continue to see hospitalization for some time to come,” Bratzler said. “COVID-19 is not gone. In parts of the country, particularly the Northeast, there have been big increases in the number of cases. We can’t let out guard down.”
The death rate in the United States jumped by nearly 16 percent between 2019 and 2020. This spike was fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic which was responsible for around 1 in 10 deaths in the country last year, according to data released by Bratzler. COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in 2020 behind heart disease and cancer.
Vaccination rates are increasing across the country. In Oklahoma, 1.9 million doses of vaccine have been administered with over half of all adults 65 and over having received a full series of the vaccine.
“I think most of the people that wanted to be vaccinated have already been vaccinated,” Bratzler said, “What it tells me is that we need to continue to work to promote the vaccine, especially in disadvantaged areas.”
One thing that Bratzler is pushing big for is getting the COVID-19 vaccines into doctor’s offices. Many of the vaccine hesitant want to speak to a health professional they know and trust before becoming vaccinated, according to Bratzler, which is why he is pushing fo vaccines in general practitioners’ offices as soon as possible.
An under-vaccinated population is one of Bratzler’s biggest concerns and could potentially be a major disruptor to Oklahoma’s recovery and reopening.
“We know that some people have concerns about the rapid development of the vaccines. I think it’s been done very scientifically and professionally, and all the long-term studies that are available have shown them to be very safe. There is also tons of misinformation on social media and that has been a real challenge,” Bratzler said.
There is also the problem of what Bratzler called “vaccine alarmism,” in which many people are reporting to have suffered side effects from the vaccine or are confused about why they should take the vaccine if they still have to wear a mask.
“In the clinical trials of Moderna and Pfizer they showed that the second dose was associated with far more symptoms than the first, though these are usually short-lived. Fever, ache, chills ... these are not side-effects, that is not an adverse reaction. This is your immune system reacting to a foreign protein to protect you for the future, because the second shot is boosting your immune system,” Bratzler said.
Bratzler continued to urge Oklahomans to take the necessary precautions of wearing a mask and social distancing. And to get the vaccine as soon as they are able.