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A nurse works in a COVID-19 unit at SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City in December. Dr. Donna Tyungu, an OU Health infectious disease specialist, said Tuesday that the coronavirus' delta variant, which is currently surging in the region, is "COVID on steroids."

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Oklahoma’s outlook appears “grim” as COVID-19 hospitalizations skyrocket amid a third wave of the illness fueled by the delta variant, with children at higher risk as the virus spreads among unvaccinated populations.

Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, an epidemiologist and University of Oklahoma College of Public Health professor, said the state could see peaks this fall similar to what was experienced in October if the state’s trajectory remains unchanged.

“The situation really is looking grim, with a greater increase in cases and hospitalizations than I expected for mid-summer,” Wendelboe said.

Notably, the White House Coronavirus Task Force under President Trump advised Gov. Kevin Stitt in early October that “many preventable deaths” were happening in Oklahoma as spread of the disease was rampant. That task force warning came before vaccines were available to offer protection and as more municipalities were implementing mask mandates in lieu of a statewide one.

Panelists at the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition’s weekly virtual news conference Tuesday expressed concern about the political nature of the pandemic and unlikelihood that the state’s leadership will reverse course on mask mandates — which the state has now made illegal for schools to require.

A state health official said about 90% of those now hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oklahoma are people who weren’t vaccinated. The official said only 20% of Oklahomans age 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of vaccine. The youngest age for which vaccination is authorized is 12.

Dr. Donna Tyungu, an OU Health infectious disease specialist, said the public needs to understand that the delta variant is different. It’s “COVID on steroids,” she said.

Tyungu said she believes that many parents and families haven’t fully grasped that the virus has mutated to a variant that can much more easily infect children than the original version. Hospitalization rates for adults have decreased, she said, but the same is not true for children.

Oklahoma reported a three-day average Tuesday of 25 pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations, and Tyungu said seven children are in intensive care units in Arkansas, with outbreaks occurring in day cares.

“Even if schools cannot mandate masks, we do recommend that … children go to school in well-fitting masks and maybe even consider medical-grade masks for children,” Tyungu said, later adding that she is hopeful that more information will become available this fall about potential vaccinations of children ages 5 to 11.

The Healthier Oklahoma Coalition experts also noted how the absence of a governor’s emergency order limits the ways in which hospitals can respond to the ongoing surge, creating difficulties in handling burgeoning patient loads.

The coalition’s leader, Dr. Jean Hausheer, said people should reflect on what was endured and learned from the pandemic in 2020.

“I believe we are a little bit higher right now than what we were at the time the initial emergency order occurred in 2020,” Hausheer said of COVID-19 metrics in Oklahoma. “We, as a coalition, are watching this — as is everyone. We’re hoping and praying for the best, that people will go get vaccinated and mitigate.”

Gov. Stitt’s office didn’t respond to the coalition’s concerns or comment about what, if any, mitigation measures the governor might be considering. A goal Stitt announced during his State of the State address earlier this year was to “get our summer back” from COVID-19.

Some hospitals in northeastern Oklahoma are seeing <&underline>more COVID patients now than during the pandemic’s worst points</&underline> as delta variant outbreaks in Missouri and Arkansas spread outward, according to INTEGRIS Health.

And hospital transfers have become an issue again.

Stillwater Medical Center recently turned down a COVID-19 patient transfer request from Joplin, Missouri, because its intensive care unit already was full, according to Dr. Mary Clarke, who practices medicine at a family clinic in Stillwater.

“It’s not just COVID that we’re concerned about; we’re already full with other things,” Clarke said, such as patients seeking care they delayed during quarantine or other phases of the pandemic. “COVID going up is going to potentially put more stress and strain on the hospital system.”

On Tuesday, the state reported a three-day average of 409 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide — a rise for the 15th consecutive report and a 253% leap since June 29. Of the 409 patients, 137 were in ICU — soaring 357% from 30 on June 29.

COVID-19 hospitalizations haven’t been this high since early March, when Oklahoma was emerging from one of the worst COVID waves in the U.S. that crested in winter at nearly 2,000 inpatients across the state.

Clarke, who also is president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said the emergency order that Stitt rescinded in early May had given hospitals more leeway to expand capacity and shuffle patients to try to keep up with the severe influx.

Wendelboe, also a former state epidemiologist, said he thinks there is too much population immunity for the pandemic in Oklahoma to return to the severity seen in the winter.

However, infected individuals now are spreading the disease on average to three other people, Wendelboe said, a meaningful increase from an average of two in early June.

“I personally am wearing my mask again when I go out in public even though I am fully vaccinated,” Wendelboe said. “Wearing a mask is just an easy thing, and it reduces the risk of transmission.”

Related video: CDC says delta variant accounts for 83% of U.S. cases

This article originally ran on tulsaworld.com.

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