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OU Chief COVID Officer emphasizes vaccination, need for cautious approach amid unpredictable spread of virus

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OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler answers questions during an OU Health livestream, Nov. 3.

OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said the FDA’s emergency use authorization of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages five to 11 will allow for a safe return to schools during a Wednesday OU Health livestream. 

Bratzler said the FDA advisory committee voted unanimously to approve the vaccine after considering a clinical trial that included 4,600 children. Of the 3,100 children who received the vaccine, no serious side effects were reported. Study results indicated the vaccine was 90.7 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 symptoms, which is comparable to its efficacy in adults

While side effects were more common in participants after the second dose, Bratzler said they were less likely in children than adults.

Oklahoma has received 600 vaccine vials for children so far, Bratzler said, with the first supply expected to arrive in the next few days. He also said he believes the state’s supply of doses will increase rapidly in the coming weeks. 

Across the country, 1.9 million cases have been reported in the five to 11 age group, but Bratzler said this is probably a “gross underestimation” because children of that age are often less symptomatic than adults. According to an Oklahoma State Department of Health report, as of Oct. 29, individuals in the five-to-11 age group make up 5.4 percent of state cases

COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death in the U.S, but the eighth leading cause of death in children between ages five and 11, Bratzler said. COVID-19 in the five-to-11-year-old age group has led to significant disruption in schools, with many students missing school to quarantine and self-isolate.

“I completely agree that in-person learning is probably the best thing that we can do for our children,” Bratzler said. “So the widespread disruption … (is) one of the compelling reasons to think about vaccinations so that we can move beyond this pandemic and have kids back in school.” 

Hospitalizations across the state are down to 548 as of Nov. 2, with about a third of patients in the ICU. Bratzler said he believes this will probably continue to be a pattern Oklahomans see in coming weeks. 

He added while 15,000 delta plus variant cases have been reported in the UK, and some have also been reported in the U.S., none have been detected in Oklahoma yet. 

Individuals who are 65 and older, or ones who are 18 to 64 years old with an underlying high-risk condition are recommended to get a booster shot. However, Bratzler said he believes a third dose will likely be recommended for everyone eventually. 

Mixing and matching vaccine brands is safe and often more convenient, Bratzler said. He added that, according to a recent National Institutes of Health study, individuals who received Johnson and Johnson for their first vaccination but got Pfizer or Moderna booster shots had higher antibody levels than those who received a Johnson and Johnson booster shot. 

Because of this, Bratzler said there may be an advantage to receiving a Pfizer or Moderna booster. 

Bratzler said the state is experiencing about 600 new cases per day, on average, and he expects that number to continue decreasing. Most breakthrough infections occur among elderly Oklahomans, who are often also in line for a booster. He said as children are often in settings where virus spread is common, vaccinating them will help state COVID-19 levels too. 

Bratzler also said even if individuals have already recovered from COVID-19, they should still get the vaccine. 

One CDC study he highlighted indicates that people who’ve had COVID-19 but didn’t get vaccinated were 5.5 times more likely to get reinfected than people who are fully vaccinated. A separate study focused in Kentucky showed people who had COVID-19 but didn’t get vaccinated were 2.3 times more likely to get reinfected. 

For months, people who had COVID-19 were encouraged to donate convalescent plasma to COVID-19 patients in the hospital, Bratzler said. While medical experts believed this would reduce those patients’ symptoms, a study published in the American Medical Association showed no difference in mortality between people who received plasma and those who didn’t. It also indicated a very low likelihood that giving patients plasma prevented them from needing a ventilator. 

However, Bratzler said some have reported plasma treatment as being effective. The only way to accurately gauge how well the treatment works is through a randomized trial, he added. 

As flu season approaches, Bratzler said many flu and COVID-19 symptoms are extremely similar. If someone has a fever and experiences a loss of taste and smell, they likely have COVID-19, but the only way to definitively tell the two apart is through a COVID-19 test. 

Additional cluster outbreaks among unvaccinated people are likely, Bratzler said, so encouraging vaccinations continues to be crucial. OU Health has not yet shifted from a pandemic to an endemic response because they fear another delta-like outbreak. 

“I think the one thing that's in the back of all our minds (is) we remember in June, when we truly might have been going to endemic levels, when we were down to three cases per 100,000 per day,” Bratzler said. “We were feeling pretty good about the pandemic and then delta hit, and I don't like saying it, but it is possible that a new variant can come out any place in the world where there's unmitigated spread of this virus. And so we have to keep our defenses up.”

senior news reporter

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

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