The Delta variant is the primary concern of Oklahoma health officials amid a recent uptick in coronavirus cases in the state, but data about who is being infected with the variant and where those infections are coming from is limited.
Only 92 confirmed cases of the Delta variant have been sequenced in Oklahoma, health officials said during a briefing Friday. But that number likely only represents a fraction of the true scope of the Delta variant in the state.
The Delta variant has been found to be more transmissible, Dr. Jolianne Stone, an epidemiologist at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said earlier this week. While recent studies indicate that full vaccination helps protect against the variant, less than half the state is vaccinated, leaving millions of Oklahomans still potentially at risk.
“We put out a call to action to labs and hospitals across the state and asked them to submit positive specimens to our public health lab for sequencing,” Stone said. She said the Delta variant made up 9 percent of the tested specimens last week. This week that figure rose to 17 percent.
But positive samples for testing have been slow to roll in, Stone said.
She said the OSDH is working to find a way to get a “full geographic spread” of positive specimens, but that is still a work in progress. When the call for positive tests went out, some larger laboratories and hospitals complied. But results from much of the state are not regularly being submitted, she said.
Discussions have taken place about mandating a certain percentage of all positive tests from across the state be sent to the Public Health Lab in Stillwater for genomic testing, OSDH Executive Director Dr. Lance Frye said, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Frye called the Delta variant “the primary new wave of what’s infectious out there” and this week the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control said it had documented a Delta variant outbreak in May at an Oklahoma gymnastics center.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the patients ranged in age from 5-years-old to 58-years-old.
The state is also not reporting its limited variant sequencing results on a county-by-county basis, something Tulsa County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said he is “actively requesting.”
“I’m assuming a vast majority of our cases here are Delta variants, but until they start testing more, you just don’t know,” he said.
Tulsa County, like the state as a whole, has seen an uptick in cases in the last month as restrictions have eased and mitigation strategies have been tossed aside by many.
“But frankly we don’t know how much of it is the Delta variant,” Dart said.
Vaccine uptake statewide has slowed dramatically in recent months and Frye said state officials even kicked around the idea of a lottery to potentially reward a random vaccinated person financially. That idea was not approved, he said on Friday, but there are other incentives the state is looking at to entice the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.
The slowdown in vaccinations matters particularly as schools are set to open for the fall semester. Schools reopenings across the state were piecemeal last year— some districts met in person, others met virtually, and some blended virtual and in-person classes. Frye said he hopes that every school in Oklahoma begins the school year with in-person instruction, but community spread of the variant could throw a wrench in those plans.
“Vaccination rates for the 12-to-34 age group is particularly low, so this group is at risk,” Frye said.
A wide swath of school-age students will be returning to class unvaccinated, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to authorize a vaccine for children younger than 12.
Right now, most new Oklahoma infections are coming from the eastern part of the state — particularly the northeast corner, Stone said. The belief is that those infections show community spread crossing over from the Missouri and Arkansas borders where the Delta variant has recently taken hold. The White House this week sent a COVID-19 surge team to southwest Missouri after a large increase of cases there.
The New York Times reported this week that Missouri has a rate of 18 positive cases per 100,000 residents, the second-highest in the country next to Arkansas with 20 cases per 100,000 residents.
Oklahoma is reporting only seven new cases per 100,000, but that still represents a 49 percent increase over 14 days ago.
Dart told The Frontier that Tulsa hospitals seem to be in good shape. He said the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the county were from outside Tulsa.
“The hospitals are doing well, we haven’t heard anything about equipment shortages or anything,” Dart said.
Meanwhile, deaths in the state due to the virus have plunged. The seven-day average has dropped to below one death per day, something that seemed impossible last winter when the seven-day average reached a peak of 44 deaths per day.
And vaccinations remain the simplest way to avoid death due to COVID-19. Stone told reporters Friday that only 14 vaccinated people have died this year of COVID-19, and all had “multiple co-morbidities” and were in the age group most vulnerable to severe effects from infection, she said.