22% of Carter County vaccinated against COVID-19, health department faces multiple fronts

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
State health commissioner Dr. Lance Frye and deputy health commissioner Keith Reed at the Ardmore Convention Center Thursday, April 22, 2021. The top health officials in the state visited a vaccination event in Ardmore to show support for public health workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Oklahoma’s top health officials were in Ardmore this week to visit a COVID-19 vaccination event as the state’s public health apparatus battles a coronavirus pandemic and local syphilis outbreak. Over 22% of Carter County’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19 as hundreds of new cases of the disease continue to be counted each week. 

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” said Dr. Lance Frye, commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, as he and Deputy Commissioner Keith Reed toured  the Ardmore Convention Center point of distribution, or POD. The events once hosted the majority of available vaccines available in the state but Frye said that many private health care providers are now receiving access to them. 

“We’re seeing a shift. I think now that vaccine supply is available in our state – we're not limited by the supply chain – we're able to get it out to more pandemic providers and the local physicians and pharmacies,” he said. 

Volunteers and public health care workers wait to administer COVID-19 vaccines at the Ardmore Convention Center Thursday, April 22, 2021.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, 10,615 people in Carter County, or 22.1%, have been fully vaccinated, including nearly one out of every three adults. Over 56% of people 65 years old or older have received vaccines. 

COVID-19 continued to spread last week as 19 new cases were recorded in Carter County, according to OSDH on Wednesday. The Health Department on Friday reported nine additional COVID-19 deaths, sending the state's death toll to 8,206 based on provisional deaths from the CDC. 

The statewide seven-day average of new cases fell to 241 on Friday, down from 268 on Monday. Vaccination efforts remain a priority for health officials along with testing and contact tracing, but the method for distributing the state allotment of vaccines continues to evolve. 

“As we move away from the big mega PODs, we’re trying to send public health teams into areas they know are hard to get to and difficult to vaccinate,” said Frye.  

Regional districts across the state have health department vehicles and vans, and the health department region including Carter County unveiled a recently acquired mobile clinic on Thursday. The mobile resources will be used for more than COVID-19 vaccination efforts, however, considering the broad scope of OSDH and general public health. 

A new Oklahoma State Department of Health mobile health clinic sits on display at the Ardmore Convention Center during a COVID-19 vaccination event Thursday, April 22, 2021.

For example, the CDC last week said reported annual cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States reached an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year in 2019. The sharpest increase was in cases of syphilis among newborns, or congenital syphilis, which nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2019. 

“Less than 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates in the U.S. were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and advances in chlamydia diagnostics made it easier to detect infections,” said Raul Romaguera, DMD, MPH, acting director for CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. “That progress has since unraveled, and our STD defenses are down. We must prioritize and focus our efforts to regain this lost ground and control the spread of STDs.” 

In Oklahoma, OSDH has been focused on pandemic response but continues to be responsible for other aspects of public health.  

“No doubt that COVID and the pandemic sort of overtook 90% of the oxygen in the room, but our other programs have continued. They’ve had to flex and sometimes not be as targeted as they were before...but we’re still working those programs,” said Frye. 

Carter County is dealing with a massive spike in syphilis cases, something that has persisted throughout the pandemic. OSDH regional director Mendy Spohn said the ongoing local outbreak is among one of the largest in the country connected to drug and gang activity out of Oklahoma City. 

More:Carter County Health Department investigating increase of syphilis cases

“Usually it’s a sex-for-drugs operation but that can also expand out of that activity because many people involved in direct parts of the outbreak also have connections outside of that outbreak,” Spohn said on Thursday. 

Many cases identified in the past year have been from women in their childbearing years and that at least 10 cases of congenital syphilis have been identified in newborn babies, at least four of whom were stillborn, according to Spohn. She said contact tracers are working to identify those who might be at risk. 

“They’re not there to do anything to investigate anything other than who may be a contact, who is exposed and who needs treatment,” she said. 

The Carter County Health Department continues to offer services, including child nutrition, family planning and sexual health services. Spohn said condoms are an effective protection against diseases, including syphilis, and are available for free at the Carter County Health Department. 

COVID-19 vaccines remain available for free at numerous retail pharmacies and the Carter County Health Department. Vaccines in Oklahoma are available to people 16 years old or over and are not restricted to in-state residents.  

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