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OU Chief COVID Officer says rise in cases caused by community spread, stresses long-term complications

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Dale Bratzler

Dr. Dale Bratzler wears a "Masking is a Must" button in his July 10 COVID-19 update.

Amid a spike in positive COVID-19 tests throughout Oklahoma, scientists are studying the effectiveness of masking ordinances, long-term symptoms and the virus’ primary mode of transmission, according to OU Medicine’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler in a July 29 livestream. 

Throughout the past seven days, Bratzler said Oklahoma has had 6,500 new cases with a rolling average of 937 cases per day. An average of 10 percent of tests in Oklahoma are positive, which Bratzler said is higher than any numbers he has seen in Oklahoma thus far. 

Bratzler said these statistics can be attributed to larger community spread, not increased testing. He said the virus is principally being spread from people in the 18–35 age group to patients 65 and older. 

“Even though the biggest majority of newly diagnosed cases are still in that younger age group, they’re exposing other people and, in Oklahoma, we’ve been watching the rate of infection for those patients 65 and older go up,” Bratzler said. “Many of those people in that age group who get infected have been exposed by younger people that may be more social or mobile out in the community setting.” 

July 17, Oklahoma City’s Council voted to require masks in indoor public places to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Bratzler said although it is too early to tell whether or not this mandate is effective, past studies have proven the benefits of masking ordinances in larger communities. 

“One of my colleagues, Dr. David Kendrick, who runs the My Health Network in Tulsa … has a rich data set that captures data on when tests are done (and) whether they’re positive or negative,” Bratzler said. “What he has shown very preliminarily is that when cities have passed ordinances, he started to be able to demonstrate their percent of positive tests have started trending down compared to communities without masking policies.” 

The benefits of Norman City Council’s July 7 decision to require masks in public settings and OU’s masking requirement have become apparent through tests conducted by Goddard Health Center’s medical director Dr. Craig Rice, Bratzler said. 

Three to four weeks ago, Bratzler said about 12 percent of the 200 to 300 weekly tests were positive. The percentage of positive cases has dropped significantly amid the masking ordinance. 

“Dr. Rice has seen the percentage of positive tests drop … substantially from where it was at 12 percent,” Bratzler said. “Before last week, it got down to less than 5 percent. So I think the first indicator that we will see that masking policies are starting to help is when we see the percentage of positive tests start to go down.”

The long-term effects of COVID-19 are also becoming an increasing topic of concern amid expanding research, Bratzler said. 

Bratzler stressed a recent study conducted by the CDC stating that 35 percent of a symptomatic sample group reported they had not returned to their usual state of health when interviewed two to three weeks after testing. The most common symptoms reported — even in younger age groups with no underlying chronic conditions — were cough and fatigue. 

Another study conducted by JAMA Cardiology through cardiac MRIs found 78 percent of a 100-person symptomatic sample group had evidence of heart inflammation from the virus. Bratzler said this is a known side effect he has seen in blood tests with COVID-19 positive individuals and is a symptom Oklahomans should now attribute to the virus. 

“(These studies) highlighted the long list of (long-term) complications and side effects patients have,” Bratzler said. “(They) simply highlighted that a lot of people will have ongoing symptoms that may last … beyond the timeframe the Oklahoma State Health Department defines as recovered.” 

Going forward, Bratzler said it is important for Oklahomans not to rely on taking their temperatures as their sole screening tool for COVID-19. He said 50 percent of people who are admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 do not have a fever, meaning a normal temperature does not mean someone is virus-free.

He also said as students of all ages return to school, it is crucial for school systems to physically distance students and implement mandatory mask policies wherever possible.

“Kids get this disease — they don’t get as sick usually, but they can definitely spread it to their adult parents or grandparents,” Bratzler said. “So I think all school districts need to be prepared and watch very closely to see whether or not they're having cases.” 

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