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The omicron variant is hitting Oklahoma hard and creating troubles unseen in earlier surges

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We’d all been hoping this was behind us. But with the latest variant, COVID-19 is as bad as it ever was. You wouldn’t think so, just looking around. Virtually no mask mandates in businesses or cities. Many employers requiring in-person work. Schools and universities welcoming all of their students back to the physical classroom.

But in reality, Oklahoma recorded some of its highest daily case counts of the pandemic in the past week. Data provided by OU Health shows the state’s case counts surpassed 4,500 fewer than a dozen times throughout the pandemic. Until now. In the past week, we’ve seen daily counts surpass 9,000. And that doesn’t account for all confirmed cases. Health officials estimate half of the people testing positive are using at-home tests, so their results aren’t submitted to the state or included in the count.

If you didn’t see this coming, you aren’t alone. Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, the former state epidemiologist and current professor at the OU College of Public Health, said that projections didn’t look this bad.

“Given the state where we’re in, I thought that the amount of previous infection and vaccination would have blunted it more than it did,” he said.

Omicron is tricky. It’s estimated to be eight times more contagious than the earlier versions of the virus. And it is infecting people who are vaccinated — even boosted.

Which brings us to one of the first new public health challenges during this wave. Since vaccines were released,

“What I’m concerned about is that people seeing that there’s so many breakthrough cases, even among boosted people, that then they translate that into, ‘The vaccine’s not working,'” he said.

Wendelboe, state health officials and others are working to remind people that they can get infected while vaccinated, but their immune response will improve significantly. Fewer than 10 percent of Oklahomans in the hospital for COVID-19 are vaccinated. But that’s not to say case counts are irrelevant to the big picture. Among other things, it is causing severe disruptions in critical services, such as education and health.

“If too many people are sick, and they can’t show up for work, that is a big deal,” he said. “And I don’t mean to then minimize the impact of these cases.”

Schools have been in the spotlight this week, as districts across the state revert back to online learning. Or, in Mid-Del’s case, shut down completely. The district is closing its schools for non-instructional days from now until the 18th.

“I still think it’s great for our kids to be in school,” Superintendent Rick Cobb said. “They need an education, they need that safe place to go. On the other hand, you know, when you have 20 to 30 percent of your staff out of the building, is it? Is it a place they’re getting an education? And is it a good place to go?”

Notice he says staff, not just teachers.

“I was in a school yesterday where the principal was serving meals because they were down to two people working in the kitchen,” he said.

He said staffing never got this low during earlier phases of the pandemic.

Dr. Mary Clarke, the president of the State Medical Association, works for the Stillwater Medical Center hospital system. She says more than 130 workers are out because of exposures and positive tests. It’s not a great time for doctors, nurses and support staff to be sick. Although the increase in hospitalizations hasn’t caught up to case counts statewide, SMC had no ICU beds open, and three people in the ER waiting for the first to open when I spoke to Clarke.

She also says there is a difference from the earlier surges at the hospital.

“As a matter of fact, last holiday season in 2020-21, I personally did not diagnose a single flu in my clinic, nor did I diagnose strep in my clinic,” she said.

Last year’s widespread masking and distancing also prevented those other viruses from spreading. Now, next to the COVID patients, there are these others. All the while, more staff is out, quarantining from community spread.

Omicron’s quick spread is of course to blame for most of this problem. But one more issue absent from earlier surges — we’re years in.

“We all have COVID fatigue,” Clarke said. “So people are tired of talking about it, they’re tired of wearing their mask.”

Having COVID fatigue is understandable, but it doesn’t change the fact that, in many ways, the peak of the pandemic is happening now.

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Catherine Sweeney reports for StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on health.