In Oklahoma, the novel coronavirus’ toll on older adults has been staggering: Oklahomans age 65 and over make up nearly 80 percent of reported deaths in the state.

In a recent one-week period, Oklahoma reported 18 deaths and 114 new cases of COVID-19 at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, bringing the total number of residents and staff who have died to 155 as of May 22.

The fatalities account for half of Oklahomans who have died after becoming infected with COVID-19, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

People connected to the facilities also made up a large portion of the state’s confirmed cases, accounting for about one in five of the 5,849 cases.

Using public data and reports through May 22 from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, The Frontier analyzed the state’s coronavirus deaths to try to determine where the disease is spreading and who it is hurting the most.

As of Friday, the state reported 307 people had died after becoming sick with COVID-19. The average age of those who died was 75. The youngest was 22. The oldest was 100.

But they are more than statistics.

Israel Sauz, 22, was an assistant manager for QuikTrip and the oldest of two siblings. He had a wife and newborn son.

Merle Dry, 55, had a heart for children’s ministry and was an active member of his church’s board. He was famous for his barbecued ribs, chicken and brisket.

Eighty-six-year-old Donald Reed Herring was a U.S. Navy veteran.

There have been fatalities in towns and cities across Oklahoma, from Bartlesville, to the panhandle, to the eastern most parts of the state, but the majority of the lives lost were from Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.

More than three-quarters of people who died after becoming infected had at least one chronic health condition, according to a weekly report from the health department.

Fifty-two percent of the deceased were men.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health, which tracks fatalities, gets reports from hospitals, physicians and long-term care facilities, said agency spokeswoman Shelley Zumwalt. A person’s death is counted in the state’s reported coronavirus deaths as long as he or she tested positive for the disease and later died, she said.

People are usually tested for COVID-19 before they die, Zumwalt said, but in some cases, for a death that is presumed to be related to the disease, the state medical examiner’s office will work to confirm it was a contributing factor.

It is the medical examiner’s duty to sign off on the death certificate, and the office and state health department work together to reconcile positive cases and deaths, Zumwalt said.

If a patient shows signs of COVID-19 before dying and has yet to be tested, they are swabbed at the medical examiner’s office, said Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the agency. The specimens are then sent to the health department for testing.

The medical examiner will determine the person’s cause of death, as well as any contributing factors. Cases take about three to six months to finalize, Elliott said.

The number of people who have died after becoming sick with the disease has not reached the estimated levels that state officials and modelers initially feared.

In April, the state estimated 469 deaths by May 1, and national models placed that number much higher.

Long-term care facilities
Nursing homes and other care facilities across the U.S. have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, and older adults and those with underlying health conditions are at higher risk for complications and death.

Out of the more than 600 long-term care facilities in the state, the coronavirus has been found in more than 80.

Following calls from nursing home advocates and operators for more state support, Gov. Kevin Stitt in April said the state was shifting its focus to eldercare facilities, which had been facing the most devastation from the disease. He designated a task force to respond to the crisis.

Stitt said he would test all nursing homes staff and residents by the end of May.

From April 22 to May 22, 91 residents and one staff member were reported to have died after becoming sick with the coronavirus in long-term care facilities.

Among the hardest hit facilities are:

  • Bartlesville Health and Rehabilitation Community: 90 confirmed cases and 18 deaths
  • Coweta Manor Nursing Home: 56 confirmed cases and 11 deaths
  • Grove Nursing Center: 78 confirmed cases and 16 deaths

Dr. Lee Jennings, OU Medicine director of Senior Health, said the reason eldery people are more at risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms is two-fold.

With age, the immune system weakens and blunts a person’s ability to mount a response to fight an infection, Jennings said in an interview streamed on Facebook earlier this month.

Dr. Lee Jennings, OU Medicine director of Senior Health. Screen grab.

“The other issue is that many people with age acquire other illnesses,” she said. “So heart disease is more common among older adults. Diabetes. Chronic lung disease or kidney disease or liver disease.

“And we know the individuals that have those things are more likely to have poor outcomes with the coronavirus infection.”

The trend can also be seen in those sick enough to be admitted to a hospital — the average age of hospitalizations was 65, according to data from the state health department.

As of May 22, 73.4 percent of those who died had at least one chronic health condition. About 55 percent had chronic heart or circulatory disease; 37.8 had diabetes; and 21 percent had chronic lung failure.

About 77 percent of those who died were white Oklahomas and 8.2 percent were black Oklahomans. Almost 7 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native, and in 4.6 percent of deaths the race was unknown.

Outbreaks in jail, pork processing plant
In Texas County, located near the tip of Oklahoma’s panhandle and with a population of less than 20,000 people, cases of COVID-19 have erupted. It has become a hotspot for the disease, as infections largely stemmed from a pork processing plant in Guymon, the county seat.

As of Friday, 851 people in the county were reported to have been infected.

Texas County had more infections per capita than any other county in the state with about 42.5 cases per 1,000 residents and had the third most reported cases overall, just behind Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.

Five people have died in the county after becoming infected with COVID-19.

Seaboard Foods, headquartered in Kansas, employs thousands of people at its Guymon plant. The company conducted plant-wide testing on May 12, according to a news release.

In partnership with the state and private labs, the company tested more than 2,000 employees, said Col. Lance Frye, the state Air Surgeon for the Oklahoma Air National Guard, at a news conference earlier this month. Stitt announced Friday morning Frye would serve as the state’s interim health commissioner.

Col. Lance Frye, the state Air Surgeon for the Oklahoma Air National Guard. Screen grab.

The state also deployed more supplies to the Texas County health department and local health providers to increase testing for the general population, Frye said.

At Comanche County Detention Center in Lawton, more than 100 inmates and 16 staff members had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

The department of corrections sent staff to the jail Tuesday to help disinfect the facility and advise employees there, a DOC news release said.

“We were not equipped to deal with this pandemic,” said Johnny Owen, the chair of the trust that operates the jail, in the release.

DOC is transporting inmates who test negative for the disease to a state lockups in Sayre and McLoud.

As of Friday, there were 236 confirmed cases in Comanche County.

Related reading:

Oklahoma starts to reopen, as battle against the coronavirus in nursing homes mounts