When Gov. Kevin Stitt announced earlier this month that not only was the COVID-19 vaccine headed to Oklahoma, but the state was getting many more initial doses of the two-dose cocktail than expected, it represented — finally — some good news. Doses of the vaccine have made it to every county in the state, Stitt said on Tuesday, as vaccination of nursing home residents began.

But all the good news was quickly tempered by the sobering fact that the state is in the midst of its worst coronavirus surge since the pandemic began. The first vaccine in the state was administered on Dec. 14, but meanwhile more than 3,000 people have reported positive COVID-19 tests each day since. 

The state reports double-digit deaths almost every day, often listing more than two dozen fatalities with each new report. On Dec. 2, Oklahoma reported 54 COVID-19 deaths in a single day — more than were reported in the state in the entire month of June. 

So while the vaccine is a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a very long, very dark tunnel. And with major holidays quickly approaching, the pandemic’s spread could get worse before it gets better.

“We hate to be a buzzkill,” Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart told The Frontier. “But while we have a vaccine, we’re still in a surge with a virus that circulates very effectively.” 

Officials warned Oklahomans about the potential for a post-Thanksgiving surge in COVID-19 cases. While some may have acted with caution — and the seven-day rolling average of new daily cases dipped a bit in early December — it wasn’t enough. Deaths and hospitalizations are at record highs this month.

“The Thanksgiving holiday is really contributing to that (increase in cases),” Dart said. “With Christmas and New Year’s right on top of each other, bang bang, it’s a problem. I know it’s hard, it’s difficult not to do the same thing you’re used to doing every year. We’re in extraordinary times and we’re asking people to do extraordinary things.” 

He knows that by asking people to scale back their holiday plans, he’s asking for yet another sacrifice in a year of them. But, he said, the good news is that it’s temporary.

“We’re changing this behavior just for right now, but eventually we get to go back to normal, the sacrifice is going to be worth it,” Dart said. “Because next year when we feel like we have enough immunity, it’s going to be great.”

‘Exercise in mass psychology’

David Holt is the mayor of the state’s largest city, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is also the city with the most reported COVID-19 infections. Oklahoma City, according to state health department data, has reported more than 40,000 total infections — meaning more than six percent of the city has tested positive. So as much as anyone, Holt knows the pain of seeing his city in the throws of a pandemic, and the joy of seeing the vaccine being distributed.

It’s now been more than a week since the inaugural vaccination was done — given to an Oklahoma City nurse in a photo op at the Integris Baptist Medical Center. Stitt called it a “historic day,” but in many ways it was more than that. Oklahoma has not been alone in feeling the effects of the coronavirus — every state has faced deaths, hospitalizations, economic downturns and massive job loss — but since this summer when cases began to fully surge, it has seemingly been nonstop bad news.

Holt said that watching the vaccinations roll out has been an “emotional experience” for him after 10 long months of watching cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise.

“You can start to imagine summer on a beach somewhere, or Christmas or Thanksgiving next year with family,” he said.

But it can’t all be good news. His fear is that the vaccinations, rather than convincing people to hold tight for another five or six months, will make everyone comfortable enough to lower their guards down.

“The vaccination news is a whole new wrinkle in this experience in mass psychology,” Holt said. “It can go one of two ways. It can influence people to relax because it’s almost over, and you know and lots of people at the end of the task don’t run through the tape, they start walking because they know they’re almost there.

“Or they maybe run through the tape, they see that it’s almost over, and now (they) can really work hard knowing that they don’t have to do it for much longer.”

He said that he’s learned over the course of 2020 that COVID-related messages and restrictions are really a “psychological experiment” as much as anything.

“People think restrictions and things you put into proclamations are the end of the argument but the reality is they’re just methods of trying to influence behaviour. They do not really govern behavior.”

He likened the situation to being the last soldier still fighting on a battlefield, unaware that the battle has already been won. In other words, if you’ve avoided the coronavirus for 10 months, don’t let your guard down and get it now, perhaps just weeks or months away from being able to get vaccinated.

“You don’t want to be the last soldier to die when the cause is already resolved. The idea is to find that right button that we push that convinces the person and persuades the person of the gravity of the moment, because in a free society that’s what you have to do,” Holt said. “Otherwise it’s prohibition, where you have outlawed liquor but everyone is drinking in their living rooms.”