Oklahoma health officials expect to receive enough shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine this month to cover health care workers providing direct inpatient coronavirus care, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, and paramedics, a population of about 160,000 that make up the state’s first priority group.  

On Thursday, state health officials said at least 166,000 doses would be shipped to Oklahoma by the end of the month, launching one of the most complex public health operations in state history that involves prioritizing recipients, convincing the public it is safe and necessary, and working with dozens of health organizations throughout the state. 

A second phase, part of the state’s four-phase vaccine distribution plan, is expected to be implemented in January and will include other health care workers, adults over the age of 65, adults with comorbidities, and staff and residents of homeless shelters, prisons and some manufacturing facilities. 

Educators, students and nearly 1.5 million critical infrastructure personnel will be offered the vaccine in a third phase, followed by the remaining 560,000 Oklahomans.

BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“The data that has been released show that (the vaccines) work really really well,” said Dr. Douglas Drevets, chief of infectious diseases at OU Health, referring to vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna that have shown a 90 to 95 percent success rate in trials. 

Questions remain about how long the immune response will last, but Drevets said there is “a reasonable degree of hope” the vaccine will provide immunity for at least a year, if not much longer. 

How fast it is distributed, how many people take it and how fast the virus continues to circulate will all impact how effective the vaccine is in curbing COVID-19 cases, which continue to climb to record highs in Oklahoma and much of the country. 

But Drevets said he hopes cases begin to significantly decrease in late winter because of the vaccine and warmer weather.

As a novel virus, no one prior to this year had immunity, and exposure to COVID-19 has not yet shown to produce a level of immunity necessary to subside the pandemic. 

Because asymptomatic individuals also play a major role in spreading the virus, health officials believe large scale adoption of the vaccine is the only way to dramatically reduce cases within the next year.

“The vaccine is definitely the preferred route for us to go and try to protect the citizens of our state,” said Dr. Jared Taylor, the state’s epidemiologist.  

Cleveland County health workers administer COVID-19 tests at one of the state’s mobile testing sites in Norman. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Production and distribution

Eleven months since the World Health Organization first announced the discovery of COVID-19 in China, the development and production of a vaccine in less than a year was an ambitious goal made possible because of large government investments and a global focus on responding to a virus that has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide. 

“The timeline has been accelerated for this vaccine but it is not due to cutting corners,” said Dr. Eliza Chakravarty, associate member of the Arthritis & Clinical Immunology Research program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. 

Developing, packaging and shipping the vaccine is only the first major feat, as individual states will now be tasked with implementing distribution plans that health experts believe will take a large portion of 2021 to get the majority of Oklahomans vaccinated. 

“Please keep in mind that an effort of this magnitude will not happen overnight and our efforts will continue over the days, weeks and months following initial receipt of the vaccine,” said Keith Reed, deputy commissioner for the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

The state is getting more doses from Pfizer and Moderna than anticipated even just a few days ago and state Commissioner of Health Lance Frye said 166,000 doses by the end of the month is a conservative estimate. 

Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

An initial shipment of 33,000 doses is expected to arrive late next week. Those will go directly to health care workers involved in the direct care of COVID-19 patients, Reed said. 

A second shipment of 38,000 doses is expected to arrive the following week. About 27,000 of those will go to residents and staff of long-term care facilities. The state is partnering with CVS and Walgreens to administer those vaccines. 

Like much of the COVID-19 response, individual states have been responsible for developing their own vaccine distribution plans. 

State officials plan to rely on close cooperation with tribal governments, pharmacies, social service organizations and health associations in distributing the vaccine, according to a 51-page plan the state submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC has offered recommendations, including prioritizing residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, as well as health care workers most at risk for becoming infected. 

While states were not required to follow the recommendations, Oklahoma’s plan closely aligns. 

Oklahoma’s first doses of the vaccine will come from Pfizer Inc., which received the green light from a key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Thursday. Though the panel’s recommendations are nonbinding, the FDA often follows them. The agency is expected to approve the vaccine for emergency use as soon as Friday. 


“The timeline has been accelerated for this vaccine but it is not due to cutting corners.”

– Dr. Eliza Chakravarty, associate member of the Arthritis & Clinical Immunology Research program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. 

Another shipment of doses of the Moderna vaccine, which is also awaiting FDA approval, could arrive in late December, health officials announced last week. Since both companies’ vaccines are given in two doses, the first shipment will include only the first doses. The second will arrive at a later date. 

AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are also nearing completion of a vaccine, according to reports from each company. 

The State Department of Health says it will work with many partners on vaccine distribution, including Walgreens and CVS.

With more than 388,000 Oklahomans receiving medical care from Indian Health Service facilities, the state Department of Health is also coordinating with tribes, although the IHS will receive some of its own vaccine doses, Frye said Friday.

State Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye watches as Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City on Oct. 20, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Public confidence 

Nearly every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense political debate, especially over how restrictive governments should be in limiting gatherings or requiring masks. 

Political debate has also intensified as vaccines have been developed, and polls show skepticism among some Oklahomans.

At least a third of Oklahomans may not be willing to take a vaccine, according to a September poll conducted by Amber Integrated.

Just 46 percent of Oklahomans said they would take a COVID-19 vaccine if it becomes available, while 37 percent said they would not. Sixteen percent said they weren’t sure.

Some Oklahomans have expressed skepticism on either side of the political spectrum.

“Because of what this administration has done, because of their constant lying about everything, … if they had said we had a vaccine last month I would say no way, I am not trusting anything that comes from this administration,” said Jessica Coplen, a Tulsa resident, referring to the Trump administration. 

“If Fauci signs off on this it will definitely give me a confidence boost in it.”

“If Fauci signs off on this it will definitely give me a confidence boost in it.”

Jessica Coplen, a Tulsa resident

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has urged Americans to take the vaccine when it is offered. 

Although he recognized public skepticism could mitigate its effectiveness. 

“There are a substantial proportion of people who do think this is not real, that it’s fake news, or it’s a hoax. This is extraordinary. I’ve never seen this before,” Fauci said this week at a Wall Street Journal event

Both Frye and Gov. Kevin Stitt have said they plan to take the vaccine when their priority group is up. 

State officials said they would not wait for every person in a priority group to receive the vaccine before moving on to the next, especially if some within a group are resistant. 

Dr. Dwight Sublett, president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said vaccine skepticism is nothing new, and though the mortality rate from COVID-19 is relatively low, people should also consider the virus can cause prolonged symptoms or damage to their bodies.

“I think anytime that you can protect yourself against the disease, and particularly with a vaccine that at this point appears to be as safe and effective as this vaccine, you ought to be taking it,” Sublett said. “That’s the smart thing to do. If I have to take my chances, taking the vaccine is definitely the lower risk.” 

After several month of nearly every facet of life being altered because of COVID-19, news of a vaccine has inspired hope that the pandemic is nearing an end. 

But local health officials said that should not lead people to believe that wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings are no longer necessary.

“This is wonderful news but we are not going to have it available for most Oklahomans until at least April,” said Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. 

“You are in this battle and the calvary is coming but the problem is a lot of people are going to die in the battle until the cavalry actually get here, so we are concerned that people of Oklahoma will let up and also concerned that leadership will not take further action because they know the vaccine is coming. We can’t wait for the calvary to get here.”