As Oklahoma officials and health experts work to forecast the impact the novel coronavirus will have, the state is ramping up efforts to collect vital data that so far has been lacking: How many people have been tested, and how many are infected?
In an effort to cast a wider net, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the state was broadening who could be tested for COVID-19, citing the availability of 13,600 test kits.
“Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 or those who have come in contact with someone with COVID needs to be tested this week,” Stitt said during a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon.
The governor also announced the state would have 13 satellite testing sites operating by the end of the week.
As experts at Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma and the state health department have worked to model and develop forecasts for how the outbreak could evolve in the state over the coming months, officials are using those predictions to plan for patient surges and consider how many ICU beds, ventilator machines and personal protective equipment hospitals might need.
But to get a clearer picture of when the state will see its highest rate of infections, officials need more data.
“One of the things that will help the modeling as we’re trying to model these peaks is more testing,” said Dr. Kayse Shrum, secretary of Science and Innovation.
“The more testing we do the more we understand what’s going on out in our communities across our state. It helps us to better look into the future through modeling of that data.”
Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge said without that data, the state has only “part of the equation.”
“The reason that we need to test is we need to see both where it exists in the community and we need to get the denominator of our math up,” he said.
Since COVID-19 started to emerge in the state in early March, Oklahoma has been slow to ramp up testing. Officials have said that’s largely because of a nationwide shortage of chemicals needed to run the tests, called reagents.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 719 known cases in the state, and at least 30 people had died.
Though Stitt said Friday that the state’s modeling would be completed within 48 hours, the governor’s office said in a press release Wednesday that it is still in the works and more details would be released once there was a “finalized product.”
Officials are currently looking at modeling from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been cited by the Whitehouse Coronavirus Task Force, that shows a spike in late April, Stitt said. But he has also seen models that indicate a spike in late August and “everything in between.”
“It’s kind of like predicting hurricane forecasting,” he said. “The farther that hurricane is out in the ocean and away from land, you have the cone of uncertainty.”
Dr. Douglas Drevets, OU Medicine Chief of Infectious Diseases, said in an interview Monday that though he was not directly involved in the modeling process, he did provide input to experts, such as when the virus might have first spread to Oklahoma and how to compare the health of the state’s population to other states.
“But realize it’s just an estimate and you try to refine your estimate each day with more data,” Drevets said.
Though testing for the virus is improving each week, Oklahoma, like many other states, still needs “robust testing,” he said. That would mean expanding testing capabilities as much as a hundredfold. Oklahoma currently is likely identifying only one out of every 10 cases.
The state’s modeling incorporates data such as Oklahoma’s positive cases, death rates and how quickly the rate of infection is doubling, Shrum said.
“All of those things are important to our epidemiologists as they’re looking at, you know, what is our estimation of the number of Oklahomans that can be infected, what will be the need for hospital beds, ICU beds and what is our peak,” Shrum said in an interview with The Frontier on Sunday.
Though the model involves data on how many confirmed cases of the virus are in the state, Shrum acknowledged testing has been limited and that epidemiologists are working with limited data.
“When you have limited testing, you have limited data so you have to start focusing in on making sure that you know your assumptions are right,” she said.
The big takeaway from the modeling, Shrum said, is for officials and experts to come to an agreement on the maximum number of Oklahomans who will be infected with COVID-19, and how many hospital beds, ventilators and other resources might be needed.
“If we can predict the peak of our infection rate, that gives us the timeframe we have to really ramp up our capabilities to be able to take care of additional Oklahomans who might need hospital services,” Shrum said.
The state has been tracking the daily capacity of hospital beds across the state, as well as how much protective gear is on hand.
Stitt said if the state does see a peak in late April, there will be enough ventilators. But if the virus peaks later, the state “will need to acquire” more. Ventilators help patients breathe and can be the difference between life and death for those suffering the most severe respiratory effects of the coronavirus.
How many people have been tested?
Along with a lack of testing, the state has struggled to get a full picture of how many people have been tested so far.
At least nearly 2,000 people have been tested in Oklahoma, but private labs, which have increasingly conducted more testing, have not reported negative results to the state.
Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Gary Cox on Tuesday sent a letter to private labs urging them to submit daily test results, including negatives. The state in March designated COVID-19 as a disease that should immediately be reported to the health department.
“With this designation, the State is instructing private labs to report both positive results and negative results to ensure the State has the full picture of COVID-19’s impact in Oklahoma,” Cox wrote.
On Wednesday evening, a health department spokeswoman said it was too early to know if the letter had an impact, but the department was hoping to see an uptick in reporting in the coming week.