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'A Dire Situation': Oklahoma Medical Community Urges Vaccine Uptake As COVID-19 Again Ravages Hospitals

Dr. Bahar Malakouti with Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City speaks at a press conference on Tuesday.

Amid silence from top state officials, Oklahoma's largest medical systems are going to the press and public directly to shed light on the state’s COVID-19 hospitalization crisis.

Gov. Kevin Stitt hasn't addressed the public regarding the coronavirus since March. The State Department of Health offered its first pandemic update in more than a month on Friday.

All the while, the state’s hospitals are again filled with COVID-19 patients needing intensive care. Oklahoma has reached a point where those patients — and even non-COVID patients — have no ICU beds waiting for them. In some hospitals, they don’t even have standard inpatient beds.

Four major hospital systems held a joint press conference Tuesday, detailing how dire the resource shortage is in their facilities. Saint Francis Health System gave a similar update on Monday.

"We do not have the staffing levels available to care for patients that we had a year ago," said Dr. Kersey Winfree, Regional Vice President of Medical Affairs at SSM St. Anthony.
"Sustained risk, fatigue and trauma have contributed to an existing medical staffing crisis statewide."

Dr. Bahar Malakouti with Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City echoed Winfree's comments.

"When we have the kind of increase in COVID patients that we've seen here in Oklahoma over the last month, all our resources are stretched beyond our limits. Our staff is burned out and wondering how we'll survive another surge," Malakouti said. "This results in real life, long term consequences for those patients, for their families and for our community at large. Some of these patients may die, or they may have permanent disabilities for the rest of their lives."

Officials with OU Health and INTEGRIS offered similar messages, and urged Oklahomans to get their vaccines. They noted that 93 percent of Oklahomans who have been hospitalized in the last month with COVID were unvaccinated.

"It is heartbreaking and exhausting," said Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer with INTEGRIS Health. "Please don't wait until you're lying in a hospital bed. Vaccines don't work at that point. Please get your vaccine so that we have beds to care for patients with cancer or diabetes or heart disease. Get it now. Get it today."

Watson specifically pleaded with pregnant women to get the vaccine.

"As an exhausted mother of two, I would never stand here and recommend a vaccine that had any evidence of affecting your unborn children or your ability to have them," Watson said. "These vaccines are safe, and frankly, protect pregnant women who are all at high risk for severe illness with COVID."

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in pregnant people. The analysis did not find an increased risk of miscarriage among nearly 2,500 pregnant women who received an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU Health's chief COVID officer, called getting the vaccine a civic responsibility to protect the community.

"This is a virus. It's not a political issue. It does not follow state lines, political divisions or anything else," Bratzler said. "It's just a virus, and it's mutated. And it may mutate more if we don't get it stopped."

While the press conference was taking place, Stitt and members of his cabinet were in Ponca City, preparing to give an update "on the things we are doing to make Oklahoma a Top Ten state."

Vaccines are available through many doctors and pharmacies, or you can use the state's appointment portal at vaccinate.ok.gov or the federal vaccine locator at vaccinefinder.org.

Catherine Sweeney reports for StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on health.
Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
Nyk Daniels is KGOU’s Morning Edition host.
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