All Oklahoma adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccine beginning Monday

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

All Oklahomans 16 years old or older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine beginning Monday. The focus on vaccinations comes as the drop in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations between January and March seems to have ended. State health officials continue to urge mitigation efforts – masks, social distancing, hygiene and vaccinations – as they settle into updated reporting methods. 

It all comes as experts warn of a fourth surge nationwide with new variants spreading rapidly through the United States. In the last week alone, the U.S. has reported 2,926 new variant cases – more than the country reported in December, January and February combined, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data compiled by USA TODAY. 

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Oklahoma has recorded 436,971 total cases of COVID-19, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health situation update on Friday. Carter County accounts for at least 5,884 of those cases, according to the weekly OSDH report of county-level data on Wednesday. 

State health officials on Wednesday announced the latest phase of coronavirus vaccination efforts to include all residents 16 years old or older. Recipients of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines must be at least 18 years old, while Pfizer recipients can be 16. 

“This is a momentous day for the state of Oklahoma,” said OSDH Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye. “Lives have been saved as a result of the drive and determination of frontline medical workers, county health departments and our partners across the state.” 

At least six other states currently offer COVID-19 vaccines to all adults, weeks ahead of a federal goal to make all adults eligible by May 1. Texas, Louisiana and North Dakota are also expected to open eligibility to all adults on Monday, according to USA TODAY. 

“Opening phase 4 is certainly a milestone, but we haven’t won the fight yet,” said Keith Reed, Deputy Commissioner of Health. “We’ve met some ambitious goals leading the state’s largest vaccination effort in a very short period of time. However, we can’t let our guard down just yet.” 

The steep drop in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state from January highs has slowed in recent weeks. The seven-day average of new cases in Oklahoma between March 19 and March 26 dropped from 446 to 364, and hospitalizations for the disease fell from 254 to 225. 

Health officials on Friday further explained recent changes in data reporting and said changing from daily updates to weekly updates can provide more accurate information and context. State epidemiologist Dr. Jared Taylor said daily updates were taxing on public health resources and could be easily misinterpreted by the general public. 

“Quite simply, that does not tell the true story of what’s happening in the community, what’s happening in the state,” Taylor said of the daily updates. “Public health always has to make decisions about where we place our resources.” 

Some of those resources are also being used to genetically test coronavirus samples for mutations. Researchers with the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation found at least three variants in wastewater collected from various sites in January, according to a March 3 statement from OU. 

OSDH Deputy Commissioner Travis Kirkpatrick said that state labs have also identified multiple coronavirus variants and have reported them to the CDC. He said labs will also begin sequencing about 5% to 10% of samples that tested negative. 

“We identified five variant strains of COVID through our initial sequencing efforts,” said Kirkpatrick. “I can report to you that we have successfully sequenced over, in the last few days, 90 additional samples and continue to have that cadence.” 

Most daily epidemiological reporting from the state health department now goes through the CDC and does not include county-level data, Taylor told reporters on Friday. Daily updates also include provisional death data which showed 7,782 COVID-19 deaths in the state through Friday.  

Meanwhile, the weekly OSDH epidemiological report on Wednesday has recorded 4,850 deaths linked to COVID-19, including 62 deaths confirmed between March 14 and March 20. Health officials have said the discrepancy reflects investigative delays in reporting and further justify the new reporting cadence from OSDH. 

“Rest assured, our folks are digging into this information every time and the only way we can do that is for us to step away from running those daily reports and doing all the troubleshooting and everything that comes with the challenge of doing that,” Taylor said. 

State public health resources will again shift to contact tracing and vaccination efforts to further slow the spread of COVID-19. Taylor said that the recent changes in reporting and steep drop in COVID-19 cases since January should not be interpreted as the end of the pandemic in Oklahoma. 

“It’s imperative that we continue to practice all the mitigation steps we have all along. We really do need to get to much more solid footing, that will include more people vaccinated, schools out of session, universities out of session, warmer weather. I think that’s the earliest that we really ought to be hoping to look at anything resembling going back to normal. And even then, we’ve got to be very, very careful,” Taylor said.