OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said in a Friday update Oklahoma continues to see a “dramatic increase” in the number of COVID-19 cases.
Bratzler said according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s current data, there are over 160,000 confirmed cases in Oklahoma, with 2,921 new cases and 15 additional deaths recorded on Nov. 20.
Bratzler said the rapid increase statewide has been “pretty scary,” with just under 20,000 new cases reported this week, and rural communities averaging 3,000 new cases a day.
Bratzler said many of his colleagues feel it’s inevitable hospitals are going to get overloaded with patients.
“If you look at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation data, (it suggests) that by the week of Christmas we'll have 1,000 more people in the hospital than we do today,” Bratzler said. “At the end of the first week of January, we could have a doubling of the number of people that are currently hospitalized in Oklahoma, which means that we're going to have to limit other activities, unless we see a substantial drop in the rate of growth of new cases.”
He also talked about the new regulations announced by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt in the state’s attempt to stymie the spread of COVID-19. The new regulations say restaurants and bars must close at 11 p.m., all restaurant seating must be spaced 6 feet apart, and all state employees must wear masks in common areas or when sharing their work space.
“I think some of the new restrictions that have been put into place may have some benefit (in) reducing the spread of the disease,” Bratzler said. “But I think, quite honestly, (seeing) 20,000 new cases in the past week, knowing there are a large number of infected people in the community that are still spreading the virus, I think it's too little, too late right now.”
Bratzler said health workers still believe there will be a substantial increase in the number of people in hospitals, even if every Oklahoman wears a mask every day in public settings and reduces some of their indoor congregate activities. He added that one of the “sad things” for public health at the moment is the lack of a unified national approach to address the pandemic.
Bratzler also discussed how long it will take for the new public health restrictions to be effective.
“If you implement public health restrictions, most studies I’ve reviewed have suggested that you don’t see much impact for the first weeks or so after they’re implemented,” Bratzler said. “But once (it) gets past two weeks, you start to see some impact of some of these restrictions. We saw that (when) comparing (communities) in Oklahoma that have mask mandates to those that did not.”
When it comes to schools’ reopening, Bratzler said the community will have to be “more aggressive” about the mitigation strategies that were shown to reduce the spread of the virus.
“In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, I strongly encourage communities to consider putting mandates into place, because it works. It reduces the number of cases of patients who end up in the hospital,” Bratzler said.
The Norman City Council has recently voted for an extension of a masking ordinance which was set to expire on Nov. 30. The policy requires face coverings in public places where social distancing is not possible.
Bratzler also added it is important to discuss the economic impact of COVID-19 as it not only restricts businesses but has a substantial impact on those who get infected because they end up in hospitals, have difficulty returning to work, or have long-term disabilities and end up paying high medical bills.
Asked about the new public health restrictions that shut down bars and restaurants at 11 p.m., Bratzler said he thinks the time frame is “a bit arbitrary.”
“My perception is that if you drive down through Bricktown or other areas that are popular at night, 11 (p.m.) is too late. Many activities are going on well before that,” Bratzler said. “And I think, again, if you have people indoors, without masks, that's where transmission occurs.”
Bratzler talked about how the community can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 ahead of expected holiday season travel.
“Any activities that bring particularly the older members of the family or those who have chronic medical conditions together, increases the risk of severe complications. So, the least would be to not do Thanksgiving at all, just stay with your immediate family — this (is) what my family has decided to do this year,” Bratzler said. “If you do get people together, physically separated, keep your mask on, go outdoors if possible, separate and remember the public health practices reduce the spread of the virus.”
Bratzler said health experts have been encouraging students all across the state to get tested before they go home for the holidays — as they have a higher rate of being asymptomatic — and to not go home if they test positive.
“We've told college students that if (they) feel ill in any way, even if (they) think it's a cold, the flu or something else, please do not go around your family and certainly don't go around family members who would be high risk for the complications of the virus,” Bratzler said.
He also said there is a concern that students could get infected during the holidays and bring the virus back to campus, and that OU will be strongly encouraging testing when students return after Thanksgiving.
Asked about mass gatherings, specifically in faith communities, Bratzler said “it’s irresponsible” and that “they should not be happening.”
“The medical community is so frustrated that people aren't hearing the message that the virus is rapidly spreading through the population,” Bratzler said. “Many of us in the medical community have been calling on the faith community to help us out. Our hospitals are full of health care workers who stretched, we've now changed nurse to patient ratios and things to try to take care of more patients. Please help us reduce the number of cases in Oklahoma.”
Finally, Bratzler talked about the COVID-19 vaccines that are now passing clinical trials.
“I'm very, very happy that Pfizer applied for emergency use authorization and I think Moderna will also be very closely following the Pfizer vaccine,” Bratzler said. “The FDA will be looking at two principal things: Number one, is there evidence the vaccine works, does it actually prevent infections? And second, does it appear to be safe? Were there any noted side effects that would create concerns about safety?”
He said at this point it seems there’s greater benefit from getting more people vaccinated to reduce hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.
“The one thing we won't have when these vaccines get approved is we’re not going to have a year or two years or three years worth of data to know what's happened,” Bratzler said. “The other thing to remember is there are multiple other vaccines that are currently in clinical trials. And I think honestly, it's very likely, in six months to a year, we're going to have a host of different vaccine options for COVID-19.”
He said his perception is the general public is starting to take COVID-19 more seriously and again pleaded with communities to not consider mask mandates political.
“We're not doing this because we're trying to tell you what you should do. But it's the same reason that we've all been using seat belts for a long time, because it was proven over time that wearing a seat belt saves people's lives,” Bratzler said. “Wearing a mask saves people's lives. And that's what we need people to do right now. When we get the vaccine available, and we can get up to what we consider true herd immunity by vaccinating the large portion of the population, then perhaps we can get away from these (mask) mandates and (physical) distance but we're not there yet. We have a ways to go.”