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'Light at the end of the tunnel': Norman community leaders weigh Oklahoma's pandemic outlook, vaccination efforts

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A graph of Oklahoma's COVID-19 cases from January through March.

On Feb. 5, OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said Oklahoma ranked third in the nation for COVID-19 rates per capita in a COVID-19 update. Now, Oklahoma has left the top 10 and continues to see reduced case counts.

Bratzler and several state and local elected officials discussed the ways they think Oklahoma leaders are and aren’t handling the pandemic effectively. 

With Oklahoma’s COVID-19 rates declining, Norman City Council member Stephen Holman said the state has done a “seemingly good job” at rolling out free vaccines.

“It’s nice to see that our state has been able to get it together on a statewide level and get this vaccination out to the people that are willing to (take) it,” Holman said. 

Bratzler said 13.5 percent of the Oklahoma population is fully vaccinated, while about 24.7 percent has received at least one dose. He said the current vaccines generate high enough levels of the antibodies to combat other strains of COVID-19. 

Holman said he has received the vaccine and encourages other Oklahomans and Normanites to receive theirs as well. 

“I definitely encourage people to (take the vaccine) so that we can get over this and go back to some sort of normalcy,” Holman said. 

Minority Leader of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said she received the COVID-19 vaccine when vaccinations were offered to legislators before the beginning of their legislative session. 

“I think that it's very important for everyone, when it's offered to them, that they take the vaccine,” Virgin said. “Herd immunity is really important. We have to reach that critical mass for the vaccine to have effectiveness for the population as a whole.” 

Virgin said the state’s former top-ten ranking in cases per capita was partially due to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s lack of safety measures such as a statewide mask mandate. 

“(Stitt) has sort of taken an attitude of ‘it's a personal choice’ and ‘you should wear a mask when you think it's necessary,’” Virgin said. “That has been really unfortunate, and I think (it) has caused our mask wearing to be fairly low when compared to other states.”

Holman said he believes the high rates were due to a “lack of a unified response” from the Oklahoma government. 

“Until the vaccine arrived, by the time we got to October, November (and) December, the numbers were astronomically higher than they were when we shut everything down,” Holman said. 

Holman said he believes Stitt should have enacted a statewide mask mandate. He said Stitt’s lack of executive action seemed “politically motivated.” 

“(Stitt) seemed reluctant to want to do much of anything when it came to (the pandemic),” Holman said. “To me, not doing it would mean not listening to medical professionals and science on the matter.” 

Virgin said she believes a statewide mask mandate has not been enacted due to “political opposition” and legislators' concern for “political repercussions.” 

“The governor is up for reelection in 2022, and that's something that I think is coming into play here,” Virgin said. “The science is very clear on (masks), and medical experts have been calling for a statewide mask mandate for a long time now.” 

Virgin said although a statewide mask mandate would have been “more helpful” earlier in the pandemic, she believes enacting a mandate now would “send an important message” on the importance of masking. 

“The things that we know … slow the spread are mask wearing and physical distance, and I think that we still have to stress those,” Virgin said. “Enforcement might be more difficult. … I think that we should send that message from the state level, rather than forcing cities and other local governments to enforce these and individual businesses and employees having to enforce these mandates rather than having authority from the state.” 

Bratzler said a statewide mask mandate could have helped prevent the surge of cases in Oklahoma following the holiday season. 

Oklahoma’s provisional death count for COVID-19 is 7,636. Provisional death counts are based on death certificates as the “most reliable source of data,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“There are multiple studies that have shown that both cities or states that have had mask mandates have lower rates of transmission of the virus,” Bratzler said. “Locations that put into place mask mandates have lower rates of infection cases and death.” 

Virgin also said Oklahoma’s ranking in general health outcomes is another factor contributing to the spread of COVID-19 within the state. Oklahoma is ranked 43rd in the nation in health outcomes. Health outcomes are changes in health that result from measures or specific care investments or interventions, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. 

“When you have a population that's already unhealthier than in other states, then your rates of severe infection and death are going to be higher,” Virgin said. “But, I think really what we've seen is that we just haven't enacted enough measures from the state level to get this under control.” 

Holman said he’s “certainly aware” of parties and large gatherings on and near campus regarding OU’s potential contribution towards the local and statewide spread of COVID-19. 

“Five hundred (students) at one event or party (in) someone’s backyard is a pretty big deal,” Holman said. “I understand why students want to go to the parties … but I think it (has) not helped the situation at all.”

Virgin said although she doesn’t believe OU specifically contributed to Oklahoma’s high COVID-19 rates, a “larger population coming and going” does contribute to the state’s rates. 

“I think that our leadership at OU has been pretty proactive in sending that message that masks are required,” Virgin said. “And the same from our leadership at the city level (with) the mayor saying masks are required.”

Bratzler said individuals between the ages of 15 and 25 could have potentially developed some level of herd immunity. 

“That's the group that was spreading the disease — the engine of the pandemic,” Bratzler said. “We think that some of those infection rates became so high that they actually developed some degree of herd immunity.” 

Bratzler said although he cannot predict it, studies have shown other coronaviruses that infect humans are seasonal. He said this might cause the virus to disappear in the spring and the summer and peak next fall and winter. 

“Here’s the scenario that I see happening: I think we may do well over the spring and summer (with) warm weather (and) people are outdoors,” Bratzler said. “Where we have to be worried is next fall because if you have groups of people who don't get vaccinated, they could be susceptible to the infection.” 

With OU planning to reopen campus to full capacity in the fall, Holman said he is hopeful. He said the Norman City Council could lift the Norman mask mandate before its June 1 deadline, especially if Stitt lifted emergency rules early. 

“I'm not expecting us to extend the mandate again after the first of June,” Holman said. “At this point, I don't think we will. I think we're going to be in a position where we won't need to.” 

Bratzler said while it's too early to decide whether OU’s mask mandate will continue through the fall, there is “good data” that masks protect people from infection even in short distances. He said he would like to see the COVID-19 rates per capita in Oklahoma below five before ending these mitigation efforts.  

Holman said while the pandemic has been stressful, he can see a “light at the end of the tunnel.” 

“I think that, for some of us, (it’s) going to take a while for us as a society …  to heal from it,” Holman said. “Hopefully, with the vaccines and the rate (at) which people are getting them, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we can get through this.”

Alexia Aston joined The Daily in the fall of 2020 as a news reporter. Alexia is a journalism major from Clinton, Oklahoma.

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