An Oklahoma doctor’s demeanor grew grim when asked her response to the near-reversal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s masking guidance.
Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, spoke slowly: “This is absolutely preventable.”
She said the members of eight different medical associations “are effectively in 100% agreement that we do need an emergency order” from Gov. Kevin Stitt — which he has said he will not issue.
“All our epidemiology models are showing … if we continue to do what we are expecting to happen, we are going to have 100% full beds,” Clarke said. “Everyone will be on divert before you know it. And it will happen very quickly. It’s not going to take four months.”
The CDC recommended Tuesday that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in certain circumstances — a change from May guidance that vaccinated people did not need to wear masks indoors or outside. The measure is only the latest step in the nation’s growing fight against COVID-19’s delta variant.
Clarke, a longtime family physician, said Oklahoma officials will follow the CDC’s guidance, knowing the agency is making the recommendation for the safety of the majority of the population.
“But we are absolutely saddened and disappointed that we cannot as a country and a people and human beings do better to take care of ourselves and our neighbors,” Clarke said.
Despite high hopes before such a preventive treatment existed, COVID-19 vaccination rates never met a threshold in which herd immunity was viable. The virus continues to spread mostly unchecked as many stringent precautions have been relaxed, giving each transmission, each viral replication, a chance to mutate into a variant more dangerous than the last.
Health officials believe that the delta variant, which seems to spread more easily and sicken patients more quickly than the original strain, is behind the latest wave of cases beginning to cripple hospitals in high-transmission areas.
“Even during the darkest days of our peak, in December of the pandemic, we did not have the number of positives being admitted to the ICU that we do now,” said Dr. David Kendrick, founder and CEO of MyHealth Access Network and chair of the Department of Medical Informatics at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine. He noted that there has also been a shift to younger unvaccinated COVID patients needing ICU beds.
The CDC advised that vaccinated people who live in areas with high COVID transmission and those who have vulnerable people in their households, such as young children or those who are immunocompromised, wear masks in indoor public spaces to reduce viral spread.
The agency also urged universal masking for all teachers, staff members and students in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
State Epidemiologist Jolianne Stone said officials will follow CDC guidance related to COVID-19 and urged Oklahomans to take “personal responsibility” as a means of protection, including getting vaccinated.
“The Oklahoma State Department of Health has and will continue to follow CDC guidance regarding COVID-19,” Stone said in a statement. “With today’s revisions by the CDC, we want to reiterate the importance of taking personal responsibility for protection against COVID-19. Additionally, we continue to encourage those who are eligible to get vaccinated.”
The recommendation may fall on deaf ears of many who are weary of pandemic restrictions, but health officials urged residents to remain alert.
Dr. Sam Ratermann, president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians and family medicine physician at INTEGRIS Grove Hospital, defeatedly shared that the outlook in his area, which is experiencing a surge in cases due to outflow from the Missouri and Arkansas borders, hasn’t changed.
Ratermann estimated that two-thirds of the patients admitted to his hospital have COVID, and he observed that the COVID patients with severe illness are increasingly younger.
One patient, a 30-year-old mother of two, was volunteering at a church camp when she contracted the virus and hadn’t gotten vaccinated because she was “healthy,” Ratermann said. Another man in his 20s with a young son mistakenly believed there was a higher risk of dying from the vaccine than from the virus itself. Both were hospitalized and “very, very” ill, Ratermann said.
“The level of misinformation out there is really heart-breaking to me,” he said. “Severe illness and death from COVID-19 can essentially be eliminated, yet we’re still not able to fight through that and get people educated.”
Vaccination remains the biggest tool to control COVID-19 on a widespread scale, officials said, but if the public can’t get onboard, hospitals will need room to act.
An emergency order would give hospitals the ability to expand clinics into nontraditional areas, such as cafeterias, Clarke said, to provide space for COVID-19 patients.
“COVID patients are slowly taking over hospital beds, so we’re already full with normal … things hospitals do all the time,” she said.
Kendrick said Oklahoma has reached test positivity rates not seen since November 2020.
As of July 20, the state’s positivity rate was 12.4%, according to the most recent Oklahoma State Department of Health data.
In terms of case numbers, trends largely mirror those the state saw last July, Kendrick said, with more patients now requiring a higher level of care.
Unless Oklahomans listen, Clarke said, the trends won’t change. Residents are urged to get vaccinated, wear masks and wash their hands.