Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are spiking again in Oklahoma, just weeks before the start of a school year that was supposed to be a return to normal.
The midsummer surge began in the past month and followed the rapid spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in neighboring Missouri and Arkansas. Most of the infected and hospitalized have not been vaccinated, health officials said. Also alarming is a recent rise in cases among children under 12, who aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Emergency approval for that age group isn’t expected until September or October.
“We hope that the Delta variant will stay a low mortality illness for children, but these rising hospitalization rates really point to evidence that this new variant will potentially be a problem for children,” Dr. Donna Tyungu, pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health, said in a media briefing on Tuesday.
Health officials continue to stress that increasing vaccination rates is key to slowing the spread of coronavirus variants and stopping new strains from circulating. But after a strong start earlier this year, Oklahoma is lagging in that indicator, with just 40% of state residents fully vaccinated.
Younger adults, as well as children older than 12, are behind in vaccination rates compared to other age groups. A bright spot continues in the over 65 age category, with more than 75% fully vaccinated in Oklahoma. That’s a little lower than the national average of almost 80%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many of the places where vaccination rates are 20% or less lie on the northeastern or southeastern borders of the state, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of vaccination rates by ZIP code. Some of those same areas have higher rates of active infections this week, particularly places in the far northeastern corner of the state.
Suburban cities around Oklahoma City and south of Tulsa, meanwhile, have vaccination rates higher than the statewide average, according to the analysis. They are joined by several ZIP codes in the north-central and southwestern parts of Oklahoma.
Public health experts said those adamantly opposed to vaccinations are a small segment of the overall population, possibly lower than 10%. A larger segment is categorized as complacent or persuadable under the right circumstances. Much of the outreach to them is coming through doctor’s offices or county health departments.
“We’re really looking for that segment of the population who, because it’s summertime and they want to think about things other than COVID, they’re really wanting to take a break,” said Buffy Heater, assistant deputy commissioner of personal health services for the Oklahoma State Department of Health. “So out of either convenience or time constraints, they haven’t quite gotten around to it.”
Oklahoma has administered more than 2.78 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, but the pace has slowed significantly in recent months. So far in July, the state has given 87,000 doses. That’s down from a high of 760,000 doses in March, according to data from the state’s vaccination tracking system.
The state had more than 500,000 doses of the three approved vaccines ready to be administered this week, Heater said. In addition, 137,045 people have received the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine but are more than two weeks late to get a second dose, the health department said.
“We have a sizable portion of our state where vaccine uptake is significantly below the national average,” Heater said. “Those are the areas that were really looking to target our messaging and making sure all the opportunities available to people in those areas. We’re doing clinics at our county health departments and mobilizing our mobile clinics.”
On Thursday, Oklahoma’s 7-day average of new daily cases hit its highest point since early March, with an average of 875. It hit a recent low of 99 on June 7. Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations hit 441, the highest level since late February.
With the rise in cases and hospitalizations, some health and medical officials want Gov. Kevin Stitt to issue another emergency declaration. The last one expired in early May, and the state stopped collecting some data that described the hospital response to COVID-19. A renewed emergency declaration could also give additional flexibility to hospitals in staffing and bed capacity.
“We are monitoring the data closely and know the numbers are not going in the right direction,” the health department said in a statement Thursday. “Currently, our 7-day case average and hospitalizations are both at a similar level to what we saw in mid-July of last year. While the trend is concerning, we are watching the data closely, and if warranted, we will recommend further action.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies.