Oklahoma now has the lowest rate of COVID-19 spread in the nation, but the recent detection of a cluster of cases attributed to a variant first identified in India underscores the importance of vaccination and demonstrates the potential for outbreaks to occur.
Dr. Dale Bratzler, University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer, on explained recent data suggests the B.1.617.2 variant spreads more rapidly than other variants and that vaccine-induced antibodies don’t seem to be as protective against it. Infectious disease and public health specialists have concerns about what might happen this coming cold and flu season if large populations of Oklahomans go unvaccinated, he said.
“We’ll probably have a very good summer in Oklahoma; I think we will see cases remain low through the summer,” Bratzler said during the weekly Healthier Oklahoma Coalition virtual news conference. “But in fall and winter as other respiratory viruses do, I think it’s likely that we may see outbreaks that occur, some breakthrough infections.
“But also what I worry most about are enlarged numbers of people who are unvaccinated where we could actually see fairly large outbreaks occur.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health announced Friday that it had identified a cluster of 17 cases of the B.1.617.2 variant — first identified in India in December — in the state about a month ago. Thirteen were associated with Cleveland County.
Three of the 17 cases were fully immunized with the Moderna vaccine, according to the OSDH news release, and two were partially vaccinated. So 12 of the 17 individuals were completely unvaccinated. All 17 began experiencing symptoms from April 16-27.
Dr. Gitanjali Pai, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, said that India strain was officially classified as a variant of concern on May 10 by the World Health Organization.
“From what we currently know, vaccination should still provide some protection against the B.1.617 variant, especially against severe illness — which underscores the need for Oklahomans to get the vaccine as soon as possible,” Pai said in a statement.
State Epidemiologist Jolianne Stone said Oklahoma’s contact tracing and efforts to learn more details about the exposures are ongoing.
Stone said the cluster is indicative of why any person who exhibits symptoms should be tested — whether vaccinated or not — to track the disease’s spread so the state can adjust how it is handling the pandemic if necessary.
“As we begin our return to normalcy across the nation, variants of any kind present the biggest threat to maintaining the decreases we’ve seen in community spread of the virus,” Stone said.
Oklahoma’s weekly cases per 100,000 people was at 24 as of last week, ranked No. 51 in the U.S., according to federal government data.
That level of spread is in the CDC’s yellow zone for moderate transmission.
Of 192 variant cases identified by OSDH so far, 156 — or 81% — are the B.1.1.7 first found in the U.K.
Bratzler said the U.K. has announced that the India variant probably will become the predominant variant there soon.