More Oklahomans died after becoming infected with the coronavirus in July than any other month so far.
Since the first documented COVID-19 death in March, 715 Oklahomans have died after an infection, according to state health data. Of those, 202 became sick in July, more than any other month in the pandemic, according to data analysis by The Frontier.
Second to July, 188 people died after becoming infected with the coronavirus in April.
New daily cases and hospitalizations hit record highs in July, about a month after Gov. Kevin Stitt fully reopened the state. However, public health experts in recent weeks have expressed optimism that new daily cases have started to plateau.
It took about four months into the pandemic for Oklahoma to surpass 400 coronavirus deaths, a milestone it reached on July 7, but only a little over a month more to report 300 additional fatalities.
The jump in coronavirus deaths was not unexpected, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU Medicine’s enterprise chief quality officer.
“During the month of July we had the biggest peak of new confirmed cases in the state,” he said. “So, no, that doesn’t surprise me.”
During that time, Oklahoma also reported record highs in the number of patients most sick with COVID-19 — those in the ICU. As of Thursday, there were 562 patients hospitalized, with 246 requiring intensive care.
“With this many people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in an intensive care unit bed, we’re going to continue to see deaths in Oklahoma,” Bratzler said.
The virus’ toll on older adults has been staggering: Oklahomans 65 and older account for nearly 79 percent of deaths in the state, according to state data. The average age of those who died was 74. The youngest was under the age of 15, and the oldest was over 100.
Almost 55 percent of the deceased were men.
About three-quarters of those who died after becoming infected had at least one chronic health condition, according to a weekly report from the health department.
The vast majority of COVID-19 infections aren’t fatal, but the true case fatality rate is tricky to calculate because the total number of cases isn’t known. Oklahoma’s rate was at about 1.4 percent on Thursday, compared to about 4 percent on April 1.
The drop can largely be credited to more widespread testing and more confirmed cases in younger Oklahomans, Bratzler said. Hospitals also have gotten better at treating infected patients, he said.
However, even with a low fatality rate, Bratzler said Oklahomans shouldn’t ease up on social distancing measures. The more the virus spreads, the more likely the state is to record more deaths. And when people are sick enough, they might be in the hospital for weeks, he said.
Additionally, a growing body of research suggests some people may have persisting symptoms from the virus for a long period of time, Bratzler said.
Nationally, there have been more than 5.5 million confirmed cases of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 173,000 deaths have been reported.
Tracking the coronavirus’ toll in Oklahoma
The Oklahoma State Department of Health, which tracks coronavirus fatalities, receives reports from hospitals, physicians and long-term care facilities, an agency spokeswoman told The Frontier in May.
The department releases data on deaths by date of report and date of symptom onset, meaning the day the deceased started to show symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19. The average time between symptom onset and death on is two weeks, according to the health department.
The agency does not release the data by the date the person died.
After a Frontier reporter requested the data, a health department spokesman on Thursday said the agency would not release it because of privacy concerns.
When reviewing fatalities, a division within the department reviews deaths to determine whether COVID-19 was a contributing factor and whether they should be included in the state’s coronavirus death count, an agency spokesman said.
Deaths stemming from causes such as car crashes, gunshot injuries or suicides are not counted in the total, even if the deceased tested positive for the virus.
“There is no incentive at the OSDH or elsewhere to incorrectly attribute deaths to COVID-19,” Interim State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor said in an emailed statement earlier this month.
“We have confidence in our physicians, medical examiners, and others to report information correctly, and believe all are making good-faith efforts to correctly classify cause of death for all Oklahomans.”