Deaths from COVID-19 have slowed dramatically in recent months and health officials now hope to boost vaccination rates among younger Oklahomans to help the state reach herd immunity.

State Epidemiologist Joli Stone told The Frontier that while it’s too early to credit vaccines for the decrease, “it does look like there’s an impact there.”

Data released to The Frontier from the Oklahoma State Department of Health this week showed a sharp decline in deaths in the state, particularly in the 65-and-up age group, beginning in February. 

The data released by OSDH includes only about 6,700 of the more than 8,200 deaths the state has reported so far. Anthony Triana, a spokesman for OSDH, said the data released from the department comes from internal figures rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics used in the state’s provisional death count.

Deaths in Oklahoma peaked in January, according to OSDH figures, with 1,563 deaths attributable to the coronavirus. The numbers in December, with about 1,500 deaths reported, were similarly dire.

But by February they began to plunge. Fewer than 520 deaths were reported that month, and the news got even better in March, when only about 140 deaths were reported to have occurred.

In the first 17 days of April, fewer than 20 deaths have been reported in the state. 

In December and January, 2,471 COVID-19 related deaths were reported in the 65-and-up age group. Less than 500 deaths in that age group were reported in February, March and the first two weeks of April combined.

“It was exciting to see the vaccine come about and to see … our most vulnerable citizens really embrace it,” Stone said. 

Deaths related to the coronavirus are considered a “lagging indicator,” so those numbers may eventually increase. But they represent such a sharp decline it’s almost impossible to ignore.

Oklahoma saw a decline in deaths after Oklahomans aged 65 and over and other high-risk groups received vaccines, Stone said. 

“If you look at the phases we implemented the vaccine in, we had those aged 65 and up and people in high risk groups that were likely to have more complications (from the coronavirus,)” Stone said. “So just looking at the data from a 30,000-foot view, it does look like the vaccines are having an effect,” Stone said.

Stone, who was just named state epidemiologist last week, said she hopes the success of the vaccines in curbing deaths and hospitalizations, which peaked at nearly 2,000 in January and today are under 200, will lead to more Oklahomans signing up for the shots.

“We would hope that individuals would continue to receive vaccinations, especially our younger age groups, because while the disease doesn’t necessarily impact them as much, they are the key to stopping transmission so these other groups don’t get infected,” she said.

The first vaccines reached Oklahoma in mid-December and by the middle of February, state, local and tribal governments were routinely pushing out more than 100,000 shots each week, according to OSDH statistics. 

But the state, at its current pace, is still six months away from reaching herd immunity, according to Bloomberg’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker.

In the early stages of the vaccination campaign, Oklahoma ranked in the top 10 states in percentage of residents vaccinated. But today, as more and more states have caught up, the state has covered fewer than 40 percent of its residents with vaccines, good enough for 34th in the country.

The reality, Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart said, is that the 18-35 year old demographic is the key to unlocking herd immunity.

“We have to work on that demographic because while they haven’t maybe been as adversely affected by the virus, if they get vaccinated, the chance of them transmitting it to others goes down,” Dart said. “That’s how we get back to normal.”

In that way, Dart said, Oklahoma is mirroring what has happened in other states. Since older people or those with comorbidities are most adversely affected by the coronavirus, Oklahoma, like most states, prioritized those groups early on before expanding access to all adults in March..

But the pace of vaccinations has slowed as vaccine access has expanded, Dart said. Statistics released by the OSDH this week showed that while nearly 60 percent of the state’s 65-and-up population have completed their vaccination, only 17 percent of those aged 18-35 have done so. 

“We really need everyone to do their part,” Dart said. “For younger people, we’re really asking them to think about each other. Getting the vaccine will not only keep you safe, but it will keep you from transmitting the virus to others. That’s how we get back to normal.”