With coronavirus on the rise again, what will another pandemic winter look like in Oklahoma?
With COVID-19 cases ticking up again in Oklahoma and across the U.S., experts predict we’re headed for another surge this winter.
Cases and hospitalizations had fallen dramatically since a COVID-19 wave hit Oklahoma in late summer, taxing health care workers and hospitals. Even after weeks of declining numbers, they never returned to the lows the state saw before the fast-spreading delta variant took hold, and cases are now rising again.
But, in part because Oklahoma’s most recent COVID-19 wave this summer was severe, the winter surge we’re facing isn’t forecasted to be as brutal, experts said.
As long as a new variant doesn’t take hold, we aren’t expected to see the hospital overcrowding we saw in August and September of this year, said Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, a University of Oklahoma epidemiologist. Wendelboe has been modeling the spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma since the early days of the pandemic.
“Having said that, what this model doesn't account for is the reality that our health care workers face — the shortage of health care workers, the many people leaving the field — just the exhaustion that everyone's facing,” he said.
Cases on the rise again in Oklahoma
The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases reported in Oklahoma hovered in the mid-500s in early November, but it’s since risen back up to 838 as of Friday’s latest figures.
Hospitalizations, which had plateaued briefly after weeks of decline, also appear to be ticking up again.
Dr. David Chansolme, medical director of infection prevention with Integris Health, said the increase in cases is worrisome.
“I don't think we'll see some of the huge increases that we saw before, but anything could happen,” he said. “If we've not learned anything yet, it's that COVID zigs when we think it's going to zag more often than not, and it could certainly happen again.”
Even with a milder surge projected than the ones Oklahoma has already been through, it would still take a toll on health care workers, Chansolme said.
“It certainly would be difficult. There's more and more stories coming out now about people leaving the health care workforce because they just can't take it anymore.” he said. “Personally, I really don't want to do another surge. It takes something out of you every time.”
In Oklahoma County, vaccination rates are high enough that health officials hope it can blunt the effect of a winter increase on hospitalizations and death rates, said Phil Maytubby, chief operating officer of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
“We’ve done a good job here of getting people vaccinated,” he said. Oklahoma County has 70% of its residents over 12 fully vaccinated. “But we know that it’s not going to be absolute — we’re still going to get cases, and we’re still going to have people end up in the hospital.”
While Oklahoma County is on much of the same trajectory for the increase in COVID-19 cases across the country, the more people who get vaccinated, the better the county will fare, Maytubby said.
In Wendelboe’s initial modeling for Oklahoma’s COVID-19 transmission heading into the winter, we weren’t expected to see an increase until December.
But with higher levels of transmission going into the winter, his updated models show that “we start to plateau, but actually, as we go into, say, January and February, we don't surge as much either,” Wendelboe said.
Those projections hinge on no new variant showing up
Oklahoma has reported over 11,700 COVID-19 deaths, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Deaths climbed dramatically after the delta variant began to spread in Oklahoma. More than 3,300 Oklahomans have died of the virus since June, and experts have said many of those deaths could have been prevented by vaccinations.
By March, the total is projected to eclipse 13,500, according to the latest forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.
But if 95% of people in the state wore a mask, the model projects about 1,000 fewer deaths.
The rest of the U.S. is also projected to see a winter surge, but Oklahoma may fare better than states that had a less severe delta variant surge in the summer, said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at IHME.
Because the delta variant sickened so many in the state, a sizable part of the population has recent infection-acquired immunity to the delta variant, Mokdad said.
For those who received a vaccination early on, they may be susceptible to infection because of waning immunity from the vaccine, he said.
That’s why a booster dose is critical. The CDC and FDA on Friday approved booster doses for all adults, and experts have said it's important for people to get them as soon as possible.
“My advice for everybody in Oklahoma: go get your third dose, because right now we know a third dose is needed for full protection and it will save lives,” Mokdad said.
Safe holiday gatherings
For public health professionals, vaccinations have allowed for some more normalcy in their holiday plans this year.
Compared to a muted holiday season last year without family get-togethers, Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer, said he now feels comfortable gathering with a small group of family, since everyone is vaccinated.
“We know we’re a vaccinated group of people (and) that the risk of spreading COVID-19 is very, very low in that setting,” he said, adding that he is fully vaccinated and has also received a booster dose.
Maytubby, with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, said his family went without holiday gatherings last year too. This year, “we want people to all be vaccinated that are coming,” he said.
“We’ll wear masks unless we’re eating, and I’m hoping that the weather’s good enough where we can be outside a lot,” Maytubby said. Normal precautions like hand-washing and sanitizing will also be part of holiday plans, he said.
Mokdad, with IHME at the University of Washington, said he’s going into this holiday season more frustrated than last year, since we have a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine that could’ve saved thousands of lives in the U.S. if more people had taken it. But he wants people to know there is a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
“If we do our homework, we can go back to our normal lives, but we shouldn't do it prematurely,” he said.