'Pandemic rages on': Medical professionals urge vaccines as COVID cases spike

·6 min read

Aug. 17—Four of the major health systems in the Oklahoma City metro held a joint press conference Tuesday urging people to get vaccinated and stressing the severity of how this new wave of COVID-19 has pushed their hospitals to full capacity with wait times for even the most dire of situations.

According to the latest data provided by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, there are currently 1,268 people hospitalized with COVID-19, with 341 of those in the ICU and 48 of them pediatric hospitalizations.

"Today we come to you not as OU Health or Mercy or Integris or SSM Health St. Anthony, but we are here as one voice," said Jennifer Schultz, OU Health senior vice president of Marketing and External Relations. "This rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past few weeks has pushed our hospitals to capacity, creating an urgent need for hospital beds."

This surge being experienced in Oklahoma is also straining the nurses, Schultz said. Hospitals across the state were already facing a shortage of nurses, but now she said this new wave of the delta variant is exacerbating the issue.

"Because of the increased demand and because our hospitals are facing a shortage of nurses, we simply cannot continue at this pace," she said. "Today we are asking for the community's help in getting through this surge by wearing your mask and getting vaccinated."

According to Dr. Julie Watson, the chief medical officer at Integris Health systems, more than 90% of people who come to the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Watson and her colleagues pleaded with Oklahomans to get vaccinated saying it is the only way to eradicate COVID-19.

"Ninety-three percent of Oklahomans who have been hospitalized in the last month with COVID have not had the vaccine," Watson said. "These patients believe in us when they are sick, but seemingly haven't trusted us when we've shared with them how to stay well. It is heartbreaking and exhausting. Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, all of these vaccines are safe."

COVID 'rages on'

Even though life briefly went back to normal, what is being experienced now is anything but according to Dr. Kersey Winfree, chief medical officer at SSM Health St. Anthony. He alluded to the common phrase said in passing "during the pandemic..." or "during the height of the pandemic..." and urged Oklahomans to not use these phrases.

"I wish we were talking in the past tense. Make no mistake, the pandemic rages on," Winfree said. "As case numbers multiply exponentially, the height of the pandemic is likely still yet to come. This is a dire situation and the rapid increase in patients due to COVID-19 is stressing resources for health care across the state."

These phrases create a sense of complacency within people, he said. This sense of complacency doesn't just have ramifications for COVID patients, but every single patient in the state.

"If you get in a car accident, have a heart attack, need an emergency surgery or, yes, even if you have a stroke, there's a chance you might not be able to get the time sensitive care you need," said Dr. Bahar Malakouti, a neurohospitalist and stroke medical director at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City. "These are all medical emergencies where every minute is crucial and when our hospitals are filled to capacity, we're just not able to provide the timely care that we normally offer."

The way to ensure that this doesn't continue and that the spread slows down is vaccines, said Dr. Dale Bratzler OU Health Chief Quality Officer.

"We need people to promote the only two interventions we have that might make a difference right now," he said. "One is getting vaccinated and the other is wearing a mask anytime you have a chance ... That's how we slow the spread of this particular variant and to slow the spread of the disease by having people wear masks, particularly at indoor events and get vaccinated we really need vaccinations."

'Leaders need to step up'

With Oklahoma having only 41.6% of its population fully vaccinated, Bratzler said it's past time for the state's leaders to step up and urge the citizens of Oklahoma to get vaccinated.

"I'm just asking for leaders to step up and to emulate and be role models to the community," Bratzler said.

He said that people, especially state leaders, need to stop pushing disinformation and start advocating for the vaccine, because it's literally saving lives while refusal to get the shot is killing people.

"The conspiracy theories and other things about tracking ... are just utterly ridiculous," Bratzler said. "We just need to get more people vaccinated at this point.

"I find it a bit interesting. I understand civil liberties and personal decision making, I get that. But there are a whole host of things that we do every day that we are held accountable for. I can't go to a bar, drink and drive home. If I wrap around a tree, nobody may care. But if I cross the center line and kill somebody, they would care. That's my civic responsibility to not do that and there are laws that prevent it. We hold people accountable."

Getting the vaccine is the same way, Bratzler said, and added that Oklahomans must hold each other accountable and urge one another to get vaccinated.

"The example from my public health past was tuberculosis," he said. "We used to go to court and take people and lock them up if they wouldn't take their tuberculosis medicines because the community did not want those people running around in the community spreading tuberculosis. So, public health has always had that ability to help require certain interventions to slow the spread of disease. It's part of what I call our civic responsibility to stop the spread of disease to other people."

The medical professonals urged people to come together to beat the COVID-19 virus and for everybody to step up and do their part in recognizing that the pandemic is the common enemy at play.

"Please fight with us instead of fighting against us," said Regan Wickwire, a COVID ICU nurse at SSM Health St. Anthony. "If you've gotten vaccinated, thank you. If you haven't already, we plead with you to do so. We don't want your last words with your mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife or children to be over a FaceTime call."

Reese Gorman covers politics and COVID-19 for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.

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