COVID-19 vaccination rates remain low in Oklahoma, hospitalizations trend up

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

State and local health officials continue to promote vaccinations and other mitigation efforts as the number of COVID-19 cases steadily increases in Oklahoma. Public health leaders say vaccination rates remain low in the state, especially among young people, and the head of the Oklahoma State Department of Health urged those who remain unvaccinated to use other precautions. 

“Vaccination numbers for 12- to 34-year-olds are particularly low, meaning that this demographic is especially at risk,” said state health commissioner Dr. Lance Frye. “Some places across the state are seeing an uptick in recent cases, particularly in areas with lower rates of vaccination.” 

According to USA TODAY, the nation’s lagging vaccine rate among young adults is raising alarms as the contagious delta variant of COVID-19 circulates while schools and colleges prepare for classes this fall. A June U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that only about half of adults 24 and under were "vaccinated or definitely planning to get vaccinated." 

Marian Hopkins looks away as she receives the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccination at the Ardmore Convention Center Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2021, while husband Randall Hopkins waits for his dose.

About 46% of Oklahomans 12 years old and over have been fully vaccinated, according to weekly OSDH data on Wednesday. Only 36% of eligible Carter County residents have been fully vaccinated and about one in three of all county residents have received their vaccine, according to the CDC. 

State health officials expect recorded case numbers to rise after the July 4 holiday. Some of the highest rates of infection and hospitalization due to the disease in the state this week are currently in northeastern counties where vaccination rates fall below 30%.  

The three-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide jumped from 127 last week to 199 on Friday, according to OSDH daily situation updates. At least 110 of those hospitalizations were recorded in the three districts that make up northeast Oklahoma. 

One of the largest employers in the area, Mercy Hospital, joined almost two dozen other health care organizations across the country and announced required vaccinations for employees earlier this week. While some exceptions could be made, Mercy Hospital Ardmore President Daryle Voss said the hospital will develop a plan for unvaccinated coworkers to meet the Sept. 30 deadline for full vaccination. 

A sign directs drivers across the Mercy Hospital Ardmore parking lot Thursday, July 8, 2021. The hospital announced this week that employees will have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30.

“Co-workers not approved for a religious or medical exemption will face disciplinary action including termination,” he said through a spokesperson on Friday. With hospitals in four states, 75% of employees are vaccinated across Mercy Hospital’s footprint, according to the Friday email. 

While educating coworkers about the efficacy of vaccines in preventing severe illness, health care experts across the state are also being asked to discuss vaccines with weary patients. OSDH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gitanjali Pai said health care providers should take the opportunity to use interactions with every patient to promote COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“Preliminary data has suggested that a majority of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID are occurring in unvaccinated people so I would use this opportunity, even in the hospital, to sort of discuss the vaccine with the patient,” Pai told reporters on Friday. “Not only for the person, but also for their families.” 

Voss said that staff in Ardmore are already providing specific information to patients. 

“Within our Mercy Clinics, our clinical staff provides answers and assurance to hesitant patients, including information regarding the reasons for vaccination, collateral materials with Myth vs. Fact insights into the COVID-19 vaccine and posters that explain the need for the vaccine,” said Voss. 

OSDH officials on Friday said that lingering concerns about the emergency-use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for three COVID-19 vaccines continue to hamper vaccination efforts. Frye said that if and when the vaccines are fully approved, many concerns from the public could be alleviated. 

“That’s one of the common fears that people have that we hear is that it’s still under emergency-use authorization, so they want to wait until there’s more data and it becomes fully approved,” Frye said. 

Frye admits that some residents will flatly refuse the vaccine. Still, he urged them to practice other mitigation efforts in a collective effort to reign in a 16-month-old pandemic. 

“There’s still a large group of people that have been either reluctant or just don’t want to get vaccinated at all,” Frye said. “If you don’t plan to get vaccinated, we recommend you use other mitigation efforts. Use the three ‘W’s,” he said, referring to wearing a mask, watching distance from others and washing hands regularly.