Active coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations remained high this week but began to decline even as the state’s death toll from the pandemic accelerated.

By Friday, there were more than 32,000 active coronavirus cases statewide, a decline of 16% in the past week. The state’s seven-day moving average of new daily cases fell to 2,564, down from an average of 3,923 a week earlier.

But reported COVID-19 deaths so far in January reached 698 on Friday, bringing the state’s death total in the pandemic to 3,187. State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor said deaths are a lagging indicator and this week’s reports may include deaths from as far back as December.

“The fatality numbers are the least real-time data that we have,” Taylor said in a media briefing on Friday. “We have to do a fairly extensive investigation in order to confirm many of those fatality numbers. It’s important to recognize that each of those is an individual; it was someone’s family member or friend or community member.” 

Hospitalizations, which peaked earlier this month at close to 2,000 patients per day, also declined this week but remained at an elevated level. By Friday, there were 1,595 patients in Oklahoma hospitals being treated for COVID-19, down 271 patients from a week ago.

Public health officials said a new variant of coronavirus appears to be more transmissible. Dubbed the “U.K. strain,” it’s not yet officially been detected in Oklahoma. But Taylor said initial test results have been identified that may be consistent with the new strains and nearby states have already identified them. He said there’s no evidence so far that COVID-19 vaccines won’t be effective against the new coronavirus strains.

“Because the ‘U.K. strain’ is more transmissible, it is more important than ever that Oklahomans take precautions to protect themselves and others,” Taylor said. “Limit your exposure to people outside your own household and follow the three W’s: wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.”

As active cases fell statewide in the past week, many local areas also saw decreases. Only about one-fifth of the state’s ZIP codes saw active cases increase over the week, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Still, active cases remained high in ZIP codes in Broken Arrow, Moore, Yukon, Ardmore and Tulsa. Those places all had more than 400 active cases by Friday. An active case is one where a person has had a positive test in the past 14 days or is seeking COVID-19 treatment in the hospital.

The state’s vaccination rollout continued at a steady pace for healthcare workers and Oklahomans older than 65. Keith Reed, deputy health commissioner, said almost 295,000 Oklahomans had received a COVID-19 vaccination by Thursday. That figure includes more than 146,000 people older than 65. Oklahoma ranked sixth among states for the proportion of adults who have received their first dose of the vaccination, according to federal data released this week.

Reed said the state health department wants to ramp up its outreach efforts to minority communities to make sure all eligible groups get a chance for the vaccination. To that end, he expects more vaccination “PODS,” or point-of-delivery systems, with retailers and faith groups to ensure equitable access and serve those who may lack transportation.

Reed also urged those signing up for vaccine appointments to provide demographic data so the state can better target its vaccination efforts. Currently, about one in five people have chosen not to provide their race or ethnicity as they’ve signed up for vaccination appointments.  

“This information is completely private and anonymous and will only be used in bulk to evaluate the effectiveness of Oklahoma’s vaccine distribution strategy,” Reed said.  

The new Biden administration released a 200-page coronavirus plan this week as President Joe Biden took office. Biden signed a slew of executive orders relating to COVID-19, including those requiring masks on interstate travel in planes, trains and buses. Others covered increased testing, collecting additional coronavirus data and providing relief to safely reopen schools. 

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017. He covers state agencies and public health. Call or text him at (571) 319-3289 or email pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies. 

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Paul Monies

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.