Oklahoma’s surge of COVID-19 cases is likely to peak soon, but the strain on hospitals will last longer, the state’s health commissioner said Wednesday.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, which topped 1,700 on Wednesday, are now higher statewide than they were during the height of the delta variant surge in the summer.
With the state recording some of its highest-ever case counts over the past two weeks, hospitalizations are expected to keep rising. Hospitals are already at a breaking point, facing this surge with worse staffing troubles than before.
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While the omicron variant may cause less severe illness than the delta variant, it's highly transmissible and can still pose a serious risk, especially for the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated, interim Health Commissioner Keith Reed said.
He asked Oklahomans to take steps to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19 that can also ease the burden on the hospital system: wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing and getting vaccinated.
Forecasting models as well as patterns of spread of the virus in other states indicate that Oklahoma will soon see case counts start to decline, Reed said.
“But it’s going to be tough for a couple weeks — maybe a little longer than that,” he said, referring to the strain on hospitals. “The hospital impact is a lagging indicator, so that will continue for a while. … We’re here to support our hospitals and we’ll continue to work with them to try to help them through this.”
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Hospital leaders, too, said they don’t think they’ve seen the worst of the surge yet. Chief medical officers from the four major health systems in Oklahoma City issued a plea to Oklahomans this week to help them weather this surge.
On Wednesday, all four systems reported having zero open ICU beds. The majority of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.
Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer for Integris Health, said Tuesday that hospital leaders were revisiting discussions with Reed about whether a statewide emergency declaration would do anything to help them.
Reed said Wednesday that he spoke with hospital chief medical officers again Tuesday night about their needs.
“To be honest with you, we haven’t been able to find anything that we don’t have now that we would get with an emergency declaration,” he said. “That’s really the trigger point for us.”
The state Health Department put emergency rules in place last summer to give hospitals more flexibility and allow the agency to collect certain COVID-19 data from hospitals and labs. That essentially gave hospitals and the Health Department the ability to do everything they could under a statewide emergency declaration.
The emergency rules are in effect through Sept. 14 of this year, unless they are superseded by another rule or disapproved by the legislature before then.
A statewide emergency declaration could, however, make it easier for schools to require masks. A state law that took effect in July 2021 limited schools' ability to require them except under a state of emergency. In response to a lawsuit challenging the law, a court order now allows schools to require masks as long as they allow for opt-outs from the policy.
Gov. Kevin Stitt rescinded the state's COVID-19 state of emergency in May 2021.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Strain on Oklahoma hospitals will continue after COVID cases peak