As the OU community heads home for Thanksgiving, concluding OU’s in-person classes, COVID-19 cases have been climbing across the state — including in Cleveland County.
Over the past two weeks, OU has recorded 124 positive COVID-19 test results, and Cleveland County and Norman have recorded 1,669 and 896 positives respectively, according to the OU dashboard and the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
“We're seeing a dramatic increase in the number of cases, broad community transmission of the virus, across the entire state. It's not limited to Norman and Cleveland County,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU’s chief COVID-19 officer. “If you look at the actual population incidence of the new cases, there are many rural counties that have more than double the rate of new cases that Cleveland County has, and that’s in part because there are a whole bunch of parts of rural Oklahoma that have never implemented any particular restrictions, mask mandates or anything else.”
Bratzler said the increased numbers of cases in the Norman community can be attributed to a number of things, including the October ice storm, where many people had to move in with others due to power outages. This, along with Halloween and the presidential election, may have contributed to the spread due to more get-togethers like watch parties.
Bratzler also cited a recent Stanford University study, which tracked cell phone records of 98 million Americans and linked their travel to points of interest like restaurants to try and predict where outbreaks were occurring.
“What they found was a high correlation between COVID outbreaks, and going to such places (like) restaurants, bars, gyms, coffee shops and places of worship,” Bratzler said. “Those were at the top of the list of places that people went in areas where there was substantial community spread of the virus. I think a lot of people let their guard down. I know a lot of people want to go out (and) do things, but boy, it's just not safe right now.”
Regarding the Thanksgiving holiday, Bratzler said OU is strongly promoting COVID-19 testing before community members leave the area to visit family. He said students who test positive should not go home, or those that do go home should self-isolate in order to control the spread of the virus.
“If you're ill in any way, please don't be around family members, because you can't tell the difference between influenza and COVID-19,” Bratzler said. “I think our Norman campus is even predicting a relatively mild, nice day on Thanksgiving. And if that's the case, take your activities outdoors if possible, particularly if you have multiple generations together. Try to wear masks, I know it's difficult when you're with family, loved ones like grandparents, but you know, they're the ones that are vulnerable to get sick if they get the disease.”
Bratzler said his family does not have any big plans and are not traveling anywhere, but two of his children live in Tulsa and are highly attentive to COVID-19 precautions. His total group size is seven people at maximum, and if the weather is nice, they plan to go outside.
“I have one granddaughter, who has been wearing a mask since she was three years old, and has just grown up with a mask,” Bratzler said. “So she just gets it. She does it all the time. So if anything, I actually will be babysitting my granddaughter one day. We’ll wear masks when we’re around.”
Accounting senior Richard Papenfus has not been home to see his family in Cape Town, South Africa, since January — and his family thought since school was going online after Thanksgiving, they’d book the plane tickets as soon as the dates were released for the holidays, before any new COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place.
“I was going to go home in May and June, but because all the planes and stuff were still down and we didn't know what was gonna happen come fall, we thought it would just be safer for me just to stay here, see what happens,” Papenfus said.
Papenfus feels comfortable traveling home to his family, and said it’s pretty similar to OU in his hometown regarding COVID-19 precautions, like wearing a mask. His family has not contracted the virus, and they have only been going out if they need something to stay safe. He said he’ll also take a COVID-19 test 48 hours prior to his 30-hour international flight, which he said was a requirement flying overseas.
“I feel pretty confident in Norman, just because much of the people we’re around — at least at our age — they wear a mask. … I do think there’s probably going to be a new rise in cases, just with all the football games coming up,” Papenfus said. “It also depends how many other people have had it before. … I won’t be surprised though if there was another lockdown, now with flu season around and a lot of people getting sick … but other than that I’m not nervous about going home from Norman.”
Bratzler said if people are masked, he believes they can fly safely, due to enhanced filtration systems and frequent disinfection.
“Please do not take your mask off on the plane. … Just assume that somebody on that plane is infected, probably several people, and they may not know. And the worst thing you can do would happen to be sitting halfway close to somebody disinfected without your mask,” Bratzler said. “Don’t accept the peanuts, don’t take your mask off, don’t drink ... but taking your mask off on an airplane, I think is quite risky. I think as long as you leave your mask on … from the moment you get to the airport … I think you can do so safely.”
Driving can also be done safely, Bratzler said, but people should be wary about the stops they make and the status of their passengers — especially regarding children.
“If you're traveling with people, the behaviors of everybody have a potential impact,” Bratzler said. “If you're traveling by car, we had some great protocols for the student athletes coming back to campus that included telling them to avoid really busy places like bathrooms and gas stations and stuff. Stop at more uncommon places like bookstores. … Find places where the bathrooms don't tend to be crowded. Think about takeout food … (because) restaurants were number one on the list of potential contact sources for infection in that very large study by Stanford.”
Public relations junior Jared Bush, an OU RUF/NEK, is flying to San Jose, California, for Thanksgiving, and was with his family in California until June, when he returned to Norman. He said when he saw OU was playing West Virginia, where he’d already been, the week of Thanksgiving, he decided to spend the holiday at home — his first Thanksgiving back since high school.
“I'm not all too worried about COVID, I mean, so long as I keep wearing a mask, even social distancing, making sure I'm around the right kind of people who I know,” Bush said. “And, you know, just being safe all together. And so long as I do that, I think I'll be okay.”
Bush said to his knowledge he has not had COVID-19, but a few of his fraternity brothers tested positive for the virus in August. He got tested at the beginning of this semester when a few of his friends tested positive, but he did not test positive.
“My parents (have) been working from home, so I mean that's good for them. … They'd all been doing the same things too; washing their hands constantly, wearing a mask whenever they go out,” Bush said. “They still try to hang out with their group of friends, and stay socially distant, people they know well, I guess.”
Both Bush and Papenfus feel the OU community’s COVID-19 situation will remain largely the same in the spring, although they would not be surprised to see an increase in cases with people returning from all over the country. Bratzler said it’s hard to know what the COVID-19 situation will look like in the state and within the OU community, but everyone who lives in congregate housing like the residence halls will have to be tested before they can move back in.
“It's really peaking right now in Oklahoma. I'm hoping people start to take it seriously, so we can start bending the curve again, and the other unknown is (a) vaccine. I think (a) vaccine could potentially be in Oklahoma, perhaps by December. It’ll be very limited in who it goes to though, so I'm not sure it will have much of an impact at the university,” Bratzler said. “I think there are plans to have a bit more flexibility around the classes in terms of being in person versus remote.”
Bratzler said he knows many students will come back to campus following the Thanksgiving holidays even though classes will be conducted virtually, so the university will continue to promote testing when they return, since many rural counties across the state are experiencing spikes in their infection rates.
The university did not consider going virtual for two weeks before Thanksgiving to limit possible exposures, Bratzler said, since they believe students in the classroom is “one of the safest places for them to be.” He said they are not seeing transmissions in classrooms, as students who are testing positive either get it from a roommate who was exposed off-campus or they themselves were exposed off-campus. The university has stated that due to classroom precautions, students in class would not be considered a close contact of any student who could potentially be positive by the CDC’s definition.
“I think a lot of the students are safer here than they will be when they leave, travel and go home,” Bratzler said. “Because I suspect that a lot of people will let their guard down, take their mask off — you’re around people you know (and) you love. I get it. But you cannot tell by looking at any individual whether they're infected or not. You just cannot.”