OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said Oklahoma has seen an almost 90 percent increase in COVID-19 cases since June 7 and addressed the outbreak of the Delta variant across the U.S.
In a June 24 afternoon OU Medicine COVID-19 update, Bratzler said it is important to “keep our guard up” as Oklahoma’s surge in COVID-19 cases has proved the pandemic is still not over, even though hospitalizations have decreased in the state. He said the surge in cases, especially in northeast Oklahoma, may account for the recent outbreak of the Delta variant in Missouri, where he said vaccination rates are “very low.”
“Just think about it. Somebody can be driving through Missouri, stop and eat at a truck stop, stop anywhere around people, and then drive on into Oklahoma,” Bratzler said. “State (and) international lines do not stop the spread of COVID-19.”
In the update, Bratzler addressed the threat of the Delta variant, first identified in India and classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. He said the symptoms of an infection with the Delta variant include headaches, a fever and a runny nose.
Bratzler said the Oklahoma State Health Department identified 41 cases from the Delta variant in Oklahoma, yet the state doesn’t test as much for genomic sequencing viruses which, according to the CDC, allows scientists to identify SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and how it changes over time into new variants. He said he believes it is important to do more genomic sequencing, as it opens an opportunity to identify potential areas of outbreaks.
Nationally, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the Delta variant is the “greatest threat” to the U.S.’s attempt to eradicate the virus, as it makes up for more than 20 percent of all new infections in the country.
“We know that the variant is 50 to 60 percent more transmissible. In other words, it spreads easier from one person to another,” Bratzler said. “Preliminary data suggest that patients who get infected with the Delta variant actually are sicker, more likely to have complications (and) more likely to end up in the hospital.”
Opportunities for increased cases and spread of the virus in the state are also explained by vaccination rates, Bratzler said. Although vaccination has improved in the state, half of Oklahomans have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“When I looked at the most recent data from the CDC this morning (June 24) in Oklahoma, only 53 percent of Oklahomans have had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and only 44 percent have had both doses,” Bratzler said.
Bratzler said although COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. work against the Delta variant, they don’t work “quite as well.” He said one dose is 33 percent effective at preventing infection with the variant, while two doses are 88 percent effective.
“The good news is, if you're fully vaccinated, even if you have a breakthrough infection with the Delta variant, you are much less likely to be hospitalized and you're much less likely to spread the virus to somebody else,” Bratzler said. “Again, a strong reason that we need to continue to do everything that we can to promote (vaccinations) in Oklahoma.”
Bratzler said there is no published data that suggests getting a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccination would be beneficial in maintaining immunity. He said a third dose may boost the immune systems of people who had organ transplants or are taking immunosuppressive drugs.
Even though natural immunity appears to prevent some COVID-19 infections, Bratzler said it is still unknown whether infections with other variants, such as the Wuhan variant, could protect individuals from being infected with the Delta variant.
Bratzler said universally effective mitigation strategies against all variants are vaccinations and the use of masks.
“If we saw a big outbreak in Oklahoma with hospitals starting to fill up again, perhaps some emergency order might require some change in mitigation strategies, but right now, overall case counts are low. It seems to be limited to a couple of areas of the state where we're seeing the most cases,” Bratzler said. “I don't anticipate any big changes, but I think all of us need to be prudent and careful, and if we see outbreaks there's nothing that keeps you from wearing a mask if you're in public.”
Ultimately, Bratzler said the most important mitigation strategy for immunocompromised OU students, professors and faculty in the fall is getting vaccinated.
“Even the most immunosuppressed get some protection from vaccines, so that's the first and most important (step),” Bratzler said. “Second, if you're not comfortable in any way, wear a mask, because it’s currently been shown to reduce person to person transmission of COVID-19, and then almost all schools will have some special accommodations for people who have very special circumstances, disabilities or others, and those you need to work with your individual school through the disability program or other mechanisms for mitigation.”