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OU Chief COVID Officer says state will likely experience 'substantial spread' as schools, universities reopen

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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 as Oklahoma’s schools and universities open up again, the state is likely to see an increased amount of COVID-19 cases during a Wednesday livestream

Oklahoma State University started spring semester classes this week, and OU will resume classes on Jan. 18. Both universities have implemented a two-week mask mandate at the start of the semester, and Bratzler wrote in a Monday email that in-person meetings, events and classes should be held virtually, if “reasonable.” 

The Daily asked each university why these mandates don’t constitute a violation of Executive Order 2021-16 and 70 O.S. 1210.189 based on their interpretations of state law. Neither university has responded.

There’s been a “substantial” spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, Bratzler said, adding that the seven-day average is now the highest it’s been at any point in the pandemic, with 6,957 new cases on average, as of Jan. 11. 

"I don't think we're out of the woods by any means," Bratzler said. "I think that we will likely see more cases as schools remain open and universities open up."

This week, multiple school districts in southwest Oklahoma and Oklahoma City Public Schools announced closures, with several citing a lack of staff due to COVID-19. Bratzler said he predicted disruptions in schools would be inevitable this year, as both students and staff are exposed to COVID-19 and have to self-isolate.  

Oklahoma's daily case averages have climbed to the 31st highest in the nation, according to The New York Times. Bratzler said 1,305 Oklahomans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, with 311 in the ICU. He said cases across the country are also climbing, with 1,592 new cases per 100,000 over the last seven days.  

Bratzler also highlighted new findings surrounding the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 in both adults and children. One study published by the CDC studied 1.7 million children under 18 to track new diabetes diagnoses. Researchers found that kids who recovered from COVID-19 were 1.3 to 2.6 times more likely to have a diagnosis of diabetes in the next 30 days than kids who didn’t get COVID-19 or had other respiratory illnesses like the respiratory syncytial virus or the flu.

Researchers involved in another study by the National Institute of Health performed autopsies on patients who died of COVID-19 at various points in the pandemic. The study found that COVID-19 disseminated widely outside the lungs and persisted for up to 230 days after the onset of the disease. They also found extensive evidence of COVID-19 in patients’ brains, which Bratzler said could explain the long-term symptoms some people experience after recovering. 

Bratzler said when some people become infected with COVID-19, they develop autoantibodies, which attack organ systems and can cause negative long-term effects. A study from Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that even some people who were asymptomatic developed autoantibodies that affected their bodies long after they recovered from COVID-19. 

“It just keeps highlighting for me the most important thing we can do to prevent infections (is) have people get their vaccine and booster doses,” Bratzler said.  

It’s unclear how often booster doses will be needed, Bratzler said, but evidence supports the fact that individuals who receive the booster have a much lower risk for complications or death from COVID-19. He also said Pfizer is in the process of developing an RNA vaccine that will target the omicron variant, but he’s unsure if it will still be necessary by the time it’s available in March.

Bratzler also highlighted a Commonwealth Fund study that examined the effects of increasing booster rates. The study found that if the U.S. doubles the number of boosters it administers, it could prevent more than 41,000 deaths and 400,000 hospitalizations between now and May. If it triples its booster rate, it could prevent 63,000 deaths by May.

“I strongly encourage people if you're eligible for a booster, get your booster dose because that will help slow the spread of this disease and certainly prevent the serious complications of the disease,” Bratzler said. 

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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