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In two years of COVID, Oklahoma has come far, but 'we'd be foolish to say that this is over right now'

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In March 2020, shoppers at Walmart and Sam's Clubs in the Tulsa area became accustomed to waiting outside stores as the retailers began implementing capacity-based COVID-19 precautions in the first months of the global pandemic.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oklahoma was announced by top state and local officials two years ago in a media briefing at the Tulsa Health Department.

In that moment, it was difficult to project what might follow. In some respects, that remains true today.

The path toward COVID becoming endemic — meaning it lives within the population but can’t transmit unchecked because a certain level of broad immunity exists — is inexorably tied to whether a new variant emerges.

Still, safe and effective vaccines and treatments are widely available now, and much more is understood about the novel coronavirus.

Since that first case in Tulsa on March 6, 2020, more than 14,700 people in Oklahoma have died from COVID-19. More than 1 million cases have been confirmed in the state.

Dr. Dale Bratzler put it in simple terms last week: On average, COVID has killed 20 Oklahomans per day for two years. There have been about 1,410 new cases per day on average in that span.

“The numbers are really staggering,” he said.

Bratzler is the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer and one of many health leaders who have regularly dispensed important information to the public about the pandemic’s evolution.

Stealth omicron — a subvariant of omicron that is more transmissible than its relative — accounted for 8.3% of new cases in the U.S. for the week ending Feb. 26, according to the latest federal data. That is up from 4.4%, 2.0% and 0.9% in the preceding weeks.

Bratzler noted that while stealth omicron has been spreading in Europe, it doesn’t seem to be taking over in the U.S. — at least not yet. Cases here are still rapidly falling.

Large chunks of the world have lower vaccination rates, he said, and that is an opportunity for the virus to churn out another variant that sweeps across the globe.

“I think we’d be foolish to say that this is over right now,” Bratzler said.

Oklahoma stayed in the high or substantial transmission categories for COVID-19 spread for three-fourths of 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions and data.

Moderate levels persisted for nearly three months — mid-April to early July — until the delta variant swooped in and overwhelmed hospitals again.

Oklahoma never made it to what CDC considers to be a low level of transmission. The state has been in the high category since late July.

Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said the population has protection from vaccination coupled with natural immunity from the delta and omicron variants to help drive down the spread for the time being.

What concerns researchers, Clarke said, is whether stealth omicron will be circulating in large enough numbers to become the next surge as population immunity wanes.

“We don’t know that yet,” she said.

Clarke pointed to other countries seeing stealth omicron take over, particularly Denmark, noting that 80% of its new cases are stealth omicron. She said scientists are trying to understand what is happening there.

Stealth omicron is circulating some in the U.S., including in Oklahoma, so scientists are eyeing what COVID trends might do in the next three to five months here, she said.

“There’s no predictability on this, and there’s no crystal ball,” Clarke said.

The Tulsa Health Department has been engaged in many internal conversations about transitioning from pandemic to endemic status. Executive Director Bruce Dart said he thinks the virus is close to endemic but still in the pandemic phase.

“I think once we start transitioning from that high-risk level that we’re currently in and we start to see that go down, I think we can have serious conversations about moving away from pandemic status and on to endemic status,” Dart said.

From a public health perspective, sewage surveillance is being developed as an early warning system to detect increases of the virus in communities or municipalities faster than the testing of individuals can offer.

Jolianne Stone, the state epidemiologist, said the Oklahoma State Department of Health is working with a few partners to implement sewage surveillance to monitor COVID.

“Right now in our target we have over 30 sites across Oklahoma that we’re looking at to be a part of this wastewater testing,” she said.

Stone added that the CDC hasn’t built wastewater surveillance into its metrics underpinning local masking guidance because that type of testing hasn’t yet been standardized. A difficulty is that people are mobile, going from work to school to home, she said. There also are variations in how the testing is done.

OU has been leading a sewage monitoring effort in Oklahoma, beginning on its Norman campus in August 2020 and then expanding to Oklahoma City in October 2020 and Tulsa in January 2021. The latest wastewater testing data are available on its data dashboard online at sewagesurveillance.net.

Bratzler often reminds people that COVID is here to stay — especially given that the virus can be in other animals, not just humans.

A number of studies have found white-tailed deer to be “very susceptible” to infection by COVID, he said.

Researchers recently documented finding what they say is the first evidence of deer-to-human transmission of a COVID variant, according to a February preprint of a Canadian study that hasn’t yet undergone peer review.

The variant in question is a “highly divergent lineage” of the virus found in white-tailed deer by a wildlife surveillance effort, according to the study. Investigation linked a human infection from white-tailed deer in the same sampling period and geographic region of November through December — hunting season — in southwestern Ontario, Canada.

The variant has 76 “consensus mutations,” the researchers say, including 37 that previously were associated with nonhuman animal hosts.

Bratzler emphasized that this is only one potential case but nonetheless is a “kind of scary” proposition.

“So that’s one of the things that we’ve been concerned about,” he said. “If we see animal reservoirs for this virus and the virus can continue to mutate in those animal reservoirs, is there the possibility that we will see another animal-to-human jump of this virus that may result in another variant spreading around the world?”


See all of the Tulsa World's coverage related to the coronavirus outbreak​ at tulsaworld.com


Featured video: Evidence of omicron spilling over into wild animals has just been found

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Staff Writer

I am a general assignment reporter who predominately writes about public health, public safety and justice reform. I'm in journalism to help make this community, state, country and, ultimately, world a better place.

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Republicans were reluctant to criticize Gov. Stitt directly, but Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said: “I hope all Oklahomans are taking note of the fact that the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate have sent a clear signal that Governor Stitt shouldn’t be responsible for Oklahoma tax dollars.”

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