OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler and OU Health Sciences Center Chief of Infectious Disease Dr. Douglas Drevets discussed in a Friday update the surge in COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma and the U.S., and the success rate of the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines.
Bratzler said Oklahoma is at 208,875 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic and reported 24 more deaths in its Friday update, bringing the total to 1,860 deaths in the state. He also highlighted the surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
“I was struck by the number of cases in the United States now,” Bratzler said. “More than 200,000 cases a day are being confirmed in the (U.S.), and two Americans die every minute from COVID-19 right now, so the number of deaths and the number of new cases in the United States has just gone up dramatically.”
He said the month of November has seen a dramatic increase in the transmission of the virus in-state as almost 75,000 new cases were confirmed, which accounts for 37 percent of all of the cases Oklahoma has seen since the start of the pandemic.
Both doctors said they believe in the COVID-19 vaccines and hope they can be distributed soon.
“I am absolutely up for that, and I'm looking forward to it,” Drevets said. “I see patients with COVID as part of my job, and although I have not had COVID yet this year, there's always a risk. So I want to protect myself in part. It will also help me protect others because the presumption is if I don't get sick, then I can do my job more effectively.”
To highlight the need for a vaccine, Drevets said although natural immunity helps people survive, it does not eradicate viral infections. He said a vaccine is needed for the world to get back to a “normal life.”
Bratzler said he’ll be in line to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it's available. Apart from being in the high-risk category for phase two of the vaccine distribution plan, Bratzler said he has to assume people he’s directly interacting with in the clinic could be infected, even if wearing full personal protective equipment and having patients wearing masks.
“The third reason I will (take the vaccine) is because I have questions about particularly these two vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — where they inject a small amount of genetic material that rapidly gets destroyed,” Bratlzer said. “But I have a very close friend who is a lead vaccine researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who went through some of the history the development of these vaccines — they've actually been in development for many years (to counter other coronaviruses) — and she made me feel very comfortable that these vaccines would be safe and effective.”
Dr. Drevets said the first vaccine Oklahoma will receive is the one produced by Pfizer, in collaboration with the German firm, BioNTech.
“This is the vaccine that was approved in the United Kingdom just earlier this week, so it has gone through significant vetting, both for safety and for efficacy,” Drevets said. “We will be receiving a limited supply of this vaccine because it's being distributed all across the United States and then of course also in the UK.”
He said the vaccine distribution plan is a “risk-based approach,” as the vaccination will start with people who are at the highest risk of dying from the infection and those in the healthcare system who regularly encounter the coronavirus.
Drevets said people who have already been infected with COVID-19 should also get the vaccine, particularly if they’re in one of the high-risk age groups or have underlying health conditions.
“We just don't know how long immunity to COVID lasts. Is it a short time, is it a long time? We do not know that answer yet,” Drevets said. “Secondly, for most infectious diseases, if you get vaccinated after you have the infection, you don't have a necessarily worse reaction, but it can boost your subsequent immunity.”
He said the third reason they would benefit from the vaccine is that many people who have had COVID-19, particularly in Oklahoma, have had mild symptoms. These people have much lower antibody responses than people who have severe symptoms, he said.
Bratzler said he’s told OU students if they want to get back to a “normal university experience” next fall, a substantial portion of the population must be vaccinated.
“For me, the vaccine is a glimmer of light at the end of a tunnel that’s been pretty long,” Bratzler said. “And I think if we really buckle down for the next couple of months — do all those public health measures as the vaccine is rolled out first to the high-risk populations and then eventually moves to the general public — we can actually get back to some sense of normal, completely reopen the economy and get our schools open for our kids. That's the only way we're going to get there as if we reduce the number of cases that are occurring.”
When it comes to masking ordinances, Bratzler said he strongly supports them, but they are not enough if they are not limiting activities in restaurants, bars, gyms or places of worship that don’t require the use of masks.
“There are multiple studies now that highlighted what are the top five places that people are getting this infection and it's typically places like restaurants, bars, gyms, places of worship, places where you come indoors, where there's some reason you're taking your mask off,” Bratzler said. “That's where people get infected.”
Drevets said he’s looking forward to not wearing a mask anymore just like anyone else.
“I am hopeful that between lots of vaccination, and then normal immunity and the change of seasons, that perhaps by the summertime, we will have such a low incidence of new infections that we can let them go at least when we're out in public,” Drevets said. “I really don't know when we will be able to let them go in the hospital setting.”
Asked about the differences between the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, Drevets said the biggest difference appears to be in the manufacturing process and distribution since the Pfizer product requires “ultra-cold” temperatures. The Moderna product does not, according to him, and has a longer shelf life.
He said if he had the option of taking one or the other, it wouldn’t matter which one he received as both vaccines have proven to be effective in preventing symptomatic disease.
“So, the question is: (is) 95 percent efficacy for a vaccine good, is (it) average or is (it) just mediocre? And it is really, really good,” Drevets said. “There are only a handful of vaccines that are better than that. And these will be things such as the tetanus toxoid vaccine, and I believe measles vaccine. On the other end of that, you get vaccines, such as the annual flu vaccine, which may be 50 to 60 percent effective in a good year. And that has to do with the characteristics of the flu and the vaccine. So 95 percent efficacy is really good.”