Vaccination rates in Oklahoma have been on an upswing in recent weeks, and state health officials hope the numbers reflect a growing willingness among the unvaccinated to get their shots and stave off an oncoming surge of new cases.
“I hate the fact that increased numbers and hospitalizations are what is convincing some people to get the vaccine,” said Keith Reed, deputy commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. “I’d prefer they be motivated that this is a life-saving vaccine that can protect themselves and their family.”
Weekly vaccinations in Oklahoma tapered to their lowest points by June after positive cases of COVID-19 had slowed to a trickle, and hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus showed dramatic declines earlier this year.
About 40 percent of Oklahomans have been fully vaccinated, lagging behind the national rate of 50 percent.
But immunizations are picking up again as the Delta variant spreads rapidly among the unvaccinated in the state, causing hospitalizations to reach their highest level since February.
More than 37,000 people in Oklahoma received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine the week of July 27, a 184 percent increase from the 13,100 people who got at least one dose the week of June 29, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
The majority of people that have been vaccinated in recent weeks have been younger and likely healthier, Reed said. As the Delta variant has caused younger, healthier individuals to be sent to the hospital, the perceived personal risk for many has gone up.
“Some of those that before were not necessarily opposed to being vaccinated or opposed to a vaccination program just didn’t perceive it as a real need for them,” Reed said. “I think those are the ones that are stepping up now to say, ‘OK, yeah, I am at risk of this. I see this now. I’m going to go ahead and get vaccinated.’”
That’s been a pervasive mindset for young or healthy people throughout the pandemic, said Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, since those who are elderly or have existing health conditions have previously made up most of Oklahoma’s hospitalizations from COVID-19.
During a call with medical professionals and media in early August, Grace Zieba, an Integris emergency room nurse in Grove, said she had concerns about the vaccine early on and decided to wait to get vaccinated, thinking she’d be able to overcome COVID easily if she got sick.
But after seeing younger people fill the hospitals and talking with doctors, she plans to get vaccinated in the coming days.
“The patients I have cared for that are my age and sometimes even younger, that are just as healthy as I am or sometimes even healthier than I am, are coming in, and we’ve had some that we’ve lost and we’ve had some that COVID has literally made them fight for their life,” Zieba said.
“I’m not immune as a 40-year-old woman with no comorbidities. I’m not immune to COVID. And I’m not ready for it to give me the fight of my life.”
While the uptick in serious cases among unvaccinated people has driven thousands of Oklahomans to get their first vaccine doses, particularly those within the 12 to 17 age range, local health departments aren’t just waiting on increased spread to motivate individuals to get vaccinated.
The federal government awarded Oklahoma’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity a $43-million grant in June to address COVID-19 disparities and vaccine access, particularly in rural areas and for minority communities.
Vaccination rates have lagged in rural areas and in the Black community, as well as for people under age 35 and for men, according to data from the state health department.
Local health departments are setting up vaccine clinics at churches and high schools and within public housing complexes. In Oklahoma City, there is free transportation to vaccine sites. In Tulsa, some groups have even handed out information at nightclubs or bars, said Floritta Pope, a director for the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
Phone operators with the state’s 2-1-1 helpline will set up free vaccine appointments, and officials have gone to small businesses to vaccinate groups of employees during the work day. Almost 30 mobile health units are traveling to towns outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa to set up vaccine sites at local events or back-to-school nights.
For Pope, making it as easy as possible for individuals to get their vaccine and to have accurate information is a priority.
“We are going to make every effort to make the vaccine available if you want it,” she said. “We’re reaching out to communities to say ‘It’s here, it’s time, and it’s available to you.’”
President Joe Biden has called for state and local officials to offer $100-cash payments to persuade people to get a vaccine. The Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus has also advocated for financial incentives.
But the state health department said it does not have any plans to offer cash payments and other incentives to boost vaccination rates.
Instead, the state is focusing on making vaccines convenient, Reed said. Consistent messaging about the safety of vaccines and constant availability to quick and easy clinics are key to connecting with those who are still on the fence about getting vaccinated, he said.
“I’m glad people are getting vaccinated, whatever the reason,” Reed said. “The stories we hear of individuals who wait too long and find themselves in life or death situations, in the hospital, wishing they had gotten the vaccine. My heart goes out to them. What a terrible position to be in knowing that I had an opportunity where I could have prevented this, but I failed to act on it.”
Frontier Executive Editor Dylan Goforth contributed to this report.