Oklahoma is facing another COVID-19 surge, and the unvaccinated are at risk, experts say
Oklahoma is facing another COVID-19 surge, and the unvaccinated are at risk, health experts say.
Given how contagious the new delta variant is, that bodes especially poorly for parts of the state with low vaccination rates. Hundreds of cases have been identified in Oklahoma, and the delta variant made up 72% of the cases the state has sequenced so far in July.
Across the state, about 40% of Oklahoma residents are fully vaccinated. But in some areas, that rate is far lower.
The most-vaccinated counties — which include Caddo, Oklahoma, Tulsa and Noble counties — have between 43% and 46% of their residents fully vaccinated.
But some of the least-vaccinated are barely over 20%. The bottom three counties for vaccination — Dewey, Cimarron and Osage — haven’t made it over 22%, according to county-level data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. George Monks, a former president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said he expects to see cases spread faster in areas where smaller portions of their residents have been vaccinated.
But even among Oklahoma counties with higher vaccination rates, it may not be enough to blunt the latest surge, Monks said. Taking into account people who have some immunity to COVID-19 through a previous infection, many will still be susceptible to the virus, he said.
Monks said he expects rural hospitals will bear the brunt of the latest COVID-19 wave at first. Rural parts of the state have lagged behind their urban counterparts in vaccinations.
“They're going to get full first, and then they're going to send patients to Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and our whole hospital system is once again going to come under strain,” he said.
Patients are already being transferred to hospitals in larger cities now, said LaWanna Halstead, vice president of quality and clinical initiatives with the Oklahoma Hospital Association.
Rural hospitals are often smaller and have fewer beds available, Halstead said.
In Oklahoma’s northeast hospital region, the average number of patients in hospitals was 31 — including 12 in the intensive-care unit — over the past three days, according to the state Health Department’s Monday report. That’s a lot, relative to the region’s total number of beds, Halstead said.
"We're really concerned about seeing such an uptick in the last two weeks, just how rapidly cases are increasing," Halstead said. "Hospitalizations always follow that. And then, of course, deaths always follow that."
Monks and Halstead said counties seeing higher hospitalizations often have lower vaccination rates. In the northeast, the geographic proximity to southwest Missouri, where hospitals are battling a large, delta-fueled outbreak, is also a factor.
Northeast Oklahoma is likely the “tip of the spear” as the delta variant has taken hold in the state, Dr. Justin Mitchell of Integris Miami Hospital said last week. There, COVID-19 beds are full again — there are even more patients now than there were in January and February, when the pandemic was at its height in Oklahoma.
Hospitals are already busy now, juggling treatment for patients who delayed procedures during the days of lockdowns, as well as an influx of RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) cases, which are usually only seen in the winter.
If surgeries and other procedures have to be delayed again, that could be detrimental to Oklahomans' health, Halstead said. And staffing hospitals will be another major concern.
"They're just going, 'Oh, my gosh, I just don't think our staff can do this again — work like they did, deal with these issues, like they did before,'" Halstead said.
It's "almost a perfect storm," Monks said.
"Now, we're putting COVID patients in the hospital and these COVID patients, their hospital stays are longer," he said. "The problem is just going to keep compounding.”
For those who have yet to be vaccinated, it’s not too late to do so.
“If you've been on the fence, if you've thought that the pandemic was behind us, it isn't, and this new delta variant is looking for you,” he said.
To find a COVID-19 vaccine near you, visit vaccines.gov, or Oklahoma's state vaccine scheduling portal at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov.