Amid preparations for the fall semester, OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler reinforced the effectiveness of saliva-based testing, while also discussing masking, travel and high-risk areas in Oklahoma.
OU administrators announced Monday they would require Norman students living in residential housing to complete a saliva-based coronavirus test before their return to campus.
Asked Friday about the effectiveness of saliva tests compared to the traditional nose swab examination, Bratzler said Vault Health, the company manufacturing the tests OU will use, validated its method against the swab test. Bratzler said the FDA then approved the test in light of its similar accuracy to nasal swabbing.
Bratzler said all forms of alternative testing must be cleared with the FDA after being validated alongside the swab test.
“For the Norman campus, we chose a company that happens to do a saliva test because we're having the students do them at home with online monitoring,” Bratzler said. “We're showing them how to do it, but it allowed us to do testing for more than 5,000 students in their homes.”
OU’s new guidelines were announced during a week in which the state saw just under 5,000 new cases and 33 new deaths, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Despite high mid-week totals, only 314 new cases were reported Friday — down from 699 one week prior — and the seven-day average dropped from 766 Thursday to 711 Friday.
Bratzler once again emphasized mask-wearing as one of the best preventative measures, while detailing the impact that an increase in diligence could have. Bratzler said a new study from the University of Washington found that even if masks were only 30 percent effective in preventing viral transmission, it would reduce the number of COVID deaths in the U.S. by 67 percent.
“When you wear a cloth mask, it dramatically stops the droplets from coming out of your mouth, and that keeps those droplets out of the air around us … so if we could get people in a mask, it will keep those droplets from getting in the air,” Bratzler said. “And if I'm around somebody that actually puts droplets in the air, (the mask) may protect me to some extent, by keeping those droplets from getting in my mouth. No mask is perfect, but it dramatically reduces the risk of getting the disease and dying from the disease.”
Bratzler said mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing are especially important for people who might be traveling or vacationing during the pandemic. He also encouraged residents to take advantage of online county maps of COVID-19 activity in order to examine the safety of their destination and adjust their plans accordingly.
“As long as you're practicing social distancing (and) you're wearing a mask when you're doing that traveling, particularly when you're around other people, I think you can travel safely,” Bratzler said. “Just remember, don't get into a circumstance where you're in a crowd of a lot of people that aren't wearing masks because that puts you at substantial risk.”
In addition to observing coronavirus data for travel destinations, Bratzler also pointed to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that examined counties across the nation with large populations of residents at risk due to underlying health conditions. In Oklahoma, 25 counties are considered among the most prevalent spots for housing high-risk individuals, according to the study.
While Bratzler said Friday he believes COVID-19 cases have plateaued in Oklahoma, he said continued precautions are vital to preventing more spikes in cases and deaths.
"When you look at various studies, the numbers vary in between there,” Bratzler said. “But the important thing is if we get most people wearing masks, we can dramatically reduce the number of people who both get the disease, but also who might subsequently die from the disease.”