As Oklahoma for several days has recorded highs in new coronavirus cases, local leaders and health experts in the largest cities say it’s a “critical” time as they urge people to practice vigilance, and look to curb cases and hospitalizations.
“We are now in a zone where we need to pay very close attention each day to what is happening with hospitalizations,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt at a news conference Tuesday.
New cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma have surged over the last week, increasing to 11,510 cases Wednesday compared to 8,904 reported a week ago.
An increase in hospitalizations also has spurred some leaders to sound the alarm, as they increased to 277 on Wednesday, an increase of 41 percent since Friday. However, officials have said hospitals are “nowhere” near to being full.
Though Gov. Kevin Stitt has said the state’s number of hospitalizations peaked in late March with 562 patients, earlier numbers from the state were likely inflated by patients with suspected cases of COVID-19, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer. Suspected cases decreased dramatically after the state expanded its testing capacity, he said.
For example, the state reported 562 people were hospitalized with the disease on March 31, with 177 patients confirmed to have COVID-19 and 385 suspected of having the disease, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. On Wednesday, 277 people were hospitalized and 205 were confirmed to have the disease.
Mayors of Tulsa and Oklahoma City have said the coming weeks are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 before patients with the disease start to fill Oklahoma’s hospital capacity. Both said they were willing to implement restrictions locally if trends continued upward.
“Next week is a critical week for identifying what, if anything, Oklahoma’s major urban areas are going to have to do to get these numbers under control before they start endangering our hospital capacity,” said Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum at a news conference Wednesday.
Oklahoma City’s metro area reported an average of 80 new cases a day in June, compared to about 50 new cases during the city’s first peak in April. As of Wednesday, Oklahoma County had 2,230 confirmed cases.
In Oklahoma City, there were 43 people hospitalized a week ago, Holt said. The number of patients reached 79 this week, which is close to the city’s all-time high.
“If hospitalizations continue to rise at the rate seen over the last few days, or if deaths return to the rates seen previously, we will have little choice but to roll back to earlier phases of our reopening,” Holt said.
Less people have been dying after becoming sick with COVID-19. From April 5 to April 11, 18 people died in the Oklahoma City metro, three times more deaths than the last four weeks combined.
Gov. Kevin Stitt told reporters on Saturday the state has a hospital surge capacity of about 5,000 beds.
A spokesman with Stitt’s office said the state’s hospital surge plan remains in effect and that the office is constantly monitoring hospitalization numbers.
‘We are sounding an alarm’
Infectious disease experts have said Oklahoma’s spike in cases is not because of increased testing. While the overall positive rate of tests was at 3.7 percent on June 1, the rate was at 4.2 percent on Wednesday, according to data from the state health department.
Holt said the COVID-19 hospitalization numbers were “right at” their all-time high in the Oklahoma City’s metro area.
“Keep in mind, we have never gotten close to overwhelming our health care system in Oklahoma City, but that’s right where we want to stay,” he said.
Though new cases have increasingly been reported in younger age groups, the disease could eventually spread to more vulnerable populations, such as those over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions, said Patrick McGough, executive director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
McGough said investigations have indicated the disease isn’t being spread at large gatherings but at “superspreaders,” such as weddings, funerals, bars, gyms and other small events.
“This is the time, we are sounding an alarm,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.
“We cannot keep going in this direction because … right now we’re seeing an uptick in hospitalizations, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of cases in that age group, so we don’t know what’s going to happen in two or three weeks. We haven’t been seeing a lot of new deaths in that age group, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Bynum echoed Holt’s statements on Wednesday, agreeing that the mayors were willing to act if trends in hospitalizations and new cases continued.
Bynum said he had been in contact with hospitals in the area this week, who told him they were “comfortable with their overall capacity.”
“But also at some point if your positive cases continue to go up, and especially if they’re going up at the rate that they’ve been going up in Tulsa over the last week or so, your hospitalizations are eventually going to start to catch up with that.” he said.
Bynum and Holt both stopped short of saying they would require people to wear masks in public to combat COVID-19. However, they both encouraged their use.
Bynum said the city wouldn’t mandate them “for now,” but would at the advice of local health officials.
From June 14 to June 20, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tulsa County increased by 92 percent, said Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. People between the ages of 18 to 35 made up more than 40 percent of those cases, he said.
And hospitalizations for that age group increased by 133 percent compared to the previous week, Dart said. The group made up a quarter of all hospitalizations in Tulsa County.
“We knew we’d see an increase in cases as our local economy reopened, but this has been higher than projected, and it’s concerning if we continue this upward trend of new cases,” Dart said.
Dart said the case spike could be a “precursor” because in the last week, though the city has yet to see an increase in deaths, it has seen a spike in hospitalizations. He said the next six weeks will be “critical” to try to flatten the curve.
“While hospitalization numbers are at an all-time high for COVID-19, we are not close to overwhelming our health care system, but we want to stay that way,” he said.
OU Medicine’s Bratzler said not mandating measures known to prevent the transmission of the disease, such as mask wearing, because there are enough hospital beds to care for COVID patients is an “unethical rationale.”
“Clearly voluntary actions aren’t working at this point,” he said.