OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said Oklahoma has managed COVID-19 effectively, but he advised continued caution as other parts of the country see a surge in new cases.
In a Thursday afternoon COVID-19 update livestream, Bratzler said although there is “good news” about the COVID-19 situation in Oklahoma — like a downward trend in number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and the administration of over 1.9 million doses of the vaccine — there remain things that “could go wrong.”
The mortality rate in the United States rose by 15.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, Bratzler said, making it important not to relax COVID-19 precautions too quickly to avoid another surge and additional deaths. COVID-19 was responsible for roughly one in ten deaths during 2020, according to an article from The Hill.
States such as Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana and North Dakota have entered the list of states who have chosen to end or will soon end statewide mask mandates, defying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s encouragement of individuals to continue wearing masks in public and maintaining proper social distancing.
“(In) Texas, (the) number of cases has been down for the past two weeks. If you look at what's happened over the past four or five days, they're starting to see an increase in the number of cases,” Bratzler said. “COVID-19 is not gone, and in parts of the country — particularly Northeast Michigan, Minnesota (and) Florida — there have been big increases in the number of cases.”
Bratzler said different COVID-19 variants should remain a concern for the Oklahoma community, even as vaccines continue to be distributed. He reported five different variant strains were identified in Oklahoma as of April 1.
“The one that concerns me the most is the South African variant, because it doesn't seem to be prevented as well by the antibodies you get when you get the (COVID-19) vaccines,” Bratzler said. “Luckily, we've only had one case of that confirmed in Oklahoma so far, but remember (that) any mutations that occurred of this virus, (which) occur when the virus is transmitted from person to person, can increase the virulence of the virus.”
It is also important to remain vigilant, Bratzler said, as health experts are still unsure whether the COVID-19 virus is seasonal, like the flu virus.
He said it is still unknown whether there will be a need for a periodic booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine or a multi-variant COVID-19 vaccine, which would protect against multiple variants of the virus.
Bratzler said there is a concern about COVID-19 reinfection among individuals who have had it before and highlighted the need to get vaccinated. He explained the vaccine boosts the immune system and can potentially help prevent future infections.
He added the vaccine distrust among some Oklahomans that can lead them to not take the vaccine could make the positive COVID-19 scenario in the state take a turn.
“Some people have been concerned about the rapid development of the vaccines, and while I think it was done very scientifically and appropriately, people have had that concern (and concerns about) side effects,” Bratzler said. “We know that people have short-term side effects, but so far, all the long-term studies that are available at least have shown vaccines to be very safe. There's tons of misinformation on social media and I think that's been a real challenge.”
He said it is important to keep up with the continuing efforts to promote the vaccine, especially in areas for disadvantaged populations that may not have the ability to sign up online or not have the transportation to get to the large vaccination events that have been taking place in the state.
Bratzler explained the stronger side effects some experience after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are caused by a boosting of the immune system.
“Those symptoms of weakness, fever, chills (and) body aches aren't side effects of the vaccine. That's your immune system working,” Bratzler said. “You get the first dose, you ramp up the immune system, and then three or four weeks later you (get) a second dose. Now you really stimulate the immune system, and that's why you have more symptoms after the second dose. Again, it's not (an) adverse reaction, it's side effects that simply say that your immune system is reacting to foreign protein, developing antibodies and T cell immunity that will protect you for the future.”
When it comes to getting vaccinated and dismissing the use of masks, Bratzler clarified the primary reason individuals get vaccinated is to keep them from getting infected with COVID-19. But he said the vaccine can also protect against more severe cases of COVID-19.
“If you happen to get it — because no vaccines are perfect — you won't get nearly as sick, you won't be hospitalized, you won't have complications and you won't become another death statistic,” Bratzler said. “There was never any guarantee that if you're fully vaccinated you'd never have to wear a mask.”
He said he believes masks will become common in certain settings such as in crowded places and around family members with an ongoing health condition.
When it comes to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, Bratzler said “we need to be smart about it.”
“I don't think you need to be wearing a mask if you're doing most activities outdoors,” Bratzler said. “We already have good research that shows that the risk of getting the infection outdoors is dramatically lower than indoors, but if you're going to be at an indoor event with a lot of people, you don't know their vaccination status. … So, I think it's a common courtesy to wear a mask.”