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OU's Chief COVID Officer discusses high transmissibility, presymptomatic spread of delta variant

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Dr. Dale Bratzler

Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler talks during a Sept. 1 livestream. 

In a Wednesday afternoon COVID-19 update livestream, Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said breakout infections among vaccinated individuals have become increasingly common due to the delta variant’s high transmissibility. 

Breakout cases make up 0.37 percent of breakout cases among fully vaccinated Oklahoma residents, according to the state's weekly epidemiological report. Among the patients diagnosed with COVID-19 admitted to the hospitals, 74 percent are unvaccinated, Bratzler said. He added only 6 to 7 percent of those hospitalized are vaccinated, and of those, three out of four are elderly people who don’t have the same antibodies as younger individuals.

There were 441 new intensive care patients in Oklahoma on Sept. 1, Bratzler said, and he fears more deaths in the coming days. Citing a study conducted in the UK, he said people infected with the delta variant are 2.3 times more likely to be hospitalized than those infected with other strains. 

Bratzler said to his knowledge, the Oklahoma City metro area has adequate supplies of PPE. He referenced efforts in Norman to conserve water, as the liquid oxygen used to treat water is now being used for COVID-19 patients. 

Because of the speed in which COVID-19 is currently mutating, Bratzler said he believes achieving herd immunity is nearly impossible. High levels of vaccination worldwide are required to prevent delta-like resurgences in the future. 

Bratzler also referenced a recent study indicating recipients of the Moderna vaccine have twice the antibody count recipients of the Pfizer vaccine do. 

According to the state’s weekly epidemiological report, 901,735 Oklahomans have received the Pfizer vaccine and 710,856 have received the Moderna vaccine. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, surveyed 2,499 healthcare workers and also found older people had lower antibody levels after being vaccinated than younger people. 

Bratzler also referenced a recent study indicating individuals infected with the delta variant may not exhibit symptoms for two days, but can still transmit the virus during that time. Of the delta infections studied, 74 percent took place in the presymptomatic phase — a higher proportion than other strains.

OU’s newest masking policy states classes where students test positive will continue to meet in person, but masks will be required for two weeks. The university has cited SB 658 and Executive Order 2021-16 as barring it from requiring masks.  

OU Law professor Joseph Thai wrote Monday that if the university believes it can require masks, it should do so before students get sick, not just after. 

"An ounce of prevention (masking before a COVID-19 case) is worth a pound of cure (masking only after)," Thai wrote.  

According to OU’s COVID-19 dashboard, 86 tests were administered on campus between Aug. 19 and 25, with 30.23 percent yielding positive results. According to COVID ActNow, Oklahoma has a 17.3 percent positive test rate, and Cleveland County has a 14.2 percent positive test rate. 

The New York Times dashboard indicates 2,538 new cases were reported on Sept. 1 in Oklahoma, with a 7-day average of 2,796 cases. 

Bratzler said epidemiologists miss many cases when they look only at health department data, as many infected people aren’t getting tested or experience minor symptoms. 

However, Bratzler said he’s not sure yet how to interpret wastewater data, as people infected with the delta variant carry 1,000 to 1,200 times more virus than those with alpha variant. Because of this, wastewater samples often indicate higher levels of infection than actually exist. He said he thinks the best strategy is watching wastewater samples, but correlating them with actual case counts.

Bratzler also said he thinks mask mandates in schools would be extremely effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses, like the flu, echoing CDC guidance encouraging universal indoor masking in K-12 schools. President Joseph Harroz said in a Wednesday State of the University address OU administrators will be pursuing a classroom mask mandate, as state law allows. 

"All of us have seen the extreme politics that have attached to this," Harroz said. "This is not just a scientific argument anymore. It is a political argument. Those are conversations we're going to have and walk through." 

Zahid Hossain contributed to this report.

Ari Fife is the OU Daily news managing editor and a senior journalism major minoring in international studies and political science. Previously, she served as the summer editor-in-chief, assistant news managing editor and a senior news reporter.

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