Oklahoma sees uptick in COVID-19 cases as faster-spreading delta variant alarms officials

Dana Branham

Oklahoma is seeing COVID-19 cases tick up again, a trend that’s alarming health leaders in the state as the more transmissible delta variant is taking hold in parts of the country.

As of Wednesday, there were more than 1,500 active cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, according to the state Health Department. That’s about a 14% increase from last week.

On June 7, the state reported a seven-day average of 99 new COVID-19 cases a day. In the state’s update Thursday, the average was up to 190.

While that’s still a relatively small number compared to what the state was averaging in the winter, with thousands of cases a day, the trend is concerning, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma. 

“We need to keep our guard up,” he said. “This isn’t completely over yet.” 

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Empty vials that contained a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus lie on a table at the Klerksdorp Hospital in South Africa.

Is Oklahoma's uptick in COVID-19 cases because of the delta variant? 

The delta variant — the name for a COVID-19 variant first discovered in India, also known as B.1.617.2 — is likely behind the trend, health experts said. It’s the same variant responsible for a cluster of cases identified in May in Cleveland County.

Oklahoma is surrounded by states with relatively high COVID-19 case rates, Bratzler said. Missouri, Oklahoma’s neighbor to the northeast, is seeing the highest rate of new infections in the country, which is being fueled by the delta variant. 

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This week, Ottawa and Craig counties, both in the northeast corner of the state, are considered in the highest-risk level based on rates of new COVID-19 cases, according to the state’s risk level map. 

Bratzler said the delta variant outbreak in Missouri likely is driving the increase in cases in northeast Oklahoma, including Tulsa. For now, central Oklahoma doesn't appear to be among areas seeing an uptick, he said.

As of Wednesday, the state Health Department had reported 41 cases of the delta variant, “but I’m betting that there are many, many more cases in Oklahoma right now,” Bratzler said Thursday.

Right now, it’s impossible to say for sure, because Oklahoma doesn’t have the genomic sequencing — which is testing that shows what strain of COVID-19 a particular sample is — completed to back it up. 

The state ranks last in the nation for the percentage of its total cases sequenced, at 0.19%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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“We are not sequencing nearly enough,” said Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. 

Still, “the assumption is that the new cases that we’re seeing here, if they are not now, they will soon be primarily the delta variant,” she said. 

The state Health Department is working to sequence specimens of recent positive cases to determine what variant or variants are driving the uptick in cases, said state epidemiologist Jolianne Stone. 

Stone said it’s not a capacity issue that’s keeping the state from doing more sequencing — the state needs more specimens to sequence in order to gain better insight into what variants are here.

“This past week, we’ve really been working hard with our laboratory partners and stating, ‘Please send in any positive specimen you have, because we do have the capacity to sequence it,’” she said. 

Particularly in the northeast part of the state, the Health Department is working with hospitals asking for specimen samples to sequence.

“As soon as we started seeing that increase, we did put out a call to action and request that,” Stone said, adding that the state should start receiving those specimens for sequencing this week or early next week. 

What to know about the delta variant

The delta variant is particularly concerning for its increased transmissibility, health leaders said. 

“We’re all concerned about how high these numbers are going to go up,” said Clarke, with the Oklahoma State Medical Association. “With this current uptick, and the delta variant, we’re concerned that this will continue to rise.” 

The good news: the vaccines we have now are protective against the delta variant. But the strain poses a real threat to people who remain unvaccinated.

For those who haven't been vaccinated, Clarke said, experts recommend sticking to the same mitigation strategies they recommended before vaccines became available: washing hands, wearing a mask, and keeping physical distance between yourself and others. 

Oklahoma's vaccination rates “are not where we would like them to be,” said Stone, the state epidemiologist. About 37.5% of Oklahoma’s population is fully vaccinated, including 44.6% of the state’s adults. Over 56% of adults have had at least one dose of a vaccine. 

Just because someone already has had COVID-19 doesn't mean they'll have immunity against new strains of the virus, Stone said. That’s why vaccinations will be key if the state is to avoid an outbreak of the delta variant. 

“So in … unvaccinated populations, this could likely spread very quickly,” Stone said. “That is something we do want to get a handle on, and the best way that individuals can do that, if they're able to, is to get vaccinated.”

To find a vaccine appointment near you, go to the state's vaccination scheduling portal at, or go to for appointments in the Oklahoma City area. More opportunities to get a COVID-19 shot can be found at