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Two more COVID strains have made their way to Oklahoma. Here's what to know

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Even more COVID subvariants have made their way to Oklahoma, and as always, they’re acting a bit different than earlier strains.

The health department confirmed in an email Wednesday that two new variants account for about 40 percent of the samples state labs have tested.

It’s hard to tell how pervasive COVID is right now. Home kits make up the lion’s share of tests. And in Oklahoma, there is no way to report those cases to the state. Still, state-documented cases are on the rise. During the first week of June, the state health department reported about 3,000 cases. Three weeks later, that figure doubled to over 6,000.

StateImpact’s Catherine Sweeney talked with Dr. David Holden, the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, about what Oklahomans should know.

Dr. David Holden, the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association
Dr. David Holden, the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association

HOLDEN: These things are six times more infectious than the original variant. And that’s typical … They quote “learn,” so to speak, what it takes to survive. What it takes to survive is being able to be spread faster and not kill off the population. For example, one reason that you know that terrible diseases like Ebola don’t spread very well is because they are too deadly. They kill people too quickly. They can’t travel. And so that’s why a virus that becomes less deadly but more infectious spreads itself and retains itself in the population.

SWEENEY: I was just wanting to talk about reinfection. Somebody who just got sick for them to get sick again quickly. It seems like those things didn’t happen as much early on. But does it seem like they’re happening more now?

HOLDEN: Well, I think certainly, yes, that the previous infection is not protecting you against these two new variants necessarily, because they are so different from a genetic standpoint that your own immune system’s response for previous infection isn’t stopping the new variants.

SWEENEY: I know just anecdotally, I’ve been hearing, and acquaintances say, “They’re just getting sick anyway. So why should I get vaccinated? I don’t think it’s a problem that I never got vaccinated.” It sounds like you’re saying that that’s not the case.

HOLDEN: I think that clearly the adage that, “Well, I don’t need it, you know, people are getting it anyway.” That may be true, but there’s a big difference between getting it, getting in hospital or, again, secondary damage that you aren’t aware of. It’s one thing to pass away from a virus. It’s another thing to be left disabled.

When I started training in the 1970s, we actually saw an increase in Parkinson’s disease in University of Texas in Houston, and nobody could figure out where it came from. Our neurology department was quite strong and was surprised by the sudden increase in cases for no apparent reason. And they linked it back to the pandemic of 1918 because the population we were seeing in the ’70s were the exact population that you might have seen that would have come from the 1918 pandemic. And as we saw here, with COVID, it crossed the blood brain-barrier and went across into the neurological system and, of course, loss of taste and smell.

SWEENEY: You might think, “It’s a respiratory virus. You breathe out of your nose and your mouth. That must just be damage in your nose and your mouth.” But that’s not the case, right?

HOLDEN: Right. And the issue that people understand is that when people talk about, well, I healed or I got over something, the reality is the nervous system doesn’t heal well at all. That’s why people have had a hard time, maybe a year now without taste and smell. It does not always recover and it’s hard to know. Well, when have you gone over the edge?

By the way, I’ll mention that a lot of the cases are occurring today as far as COVID for travel. And I would still urge people to wear a mask in close quarters, airplanes, bathrooms in the airport, things like that, where you just think about that if you’re in a bathroom, in an airport, think how many thousands of people go through that bathroom.

SWEENEY: I saw a little helpful hint: When you’re thinking about protecting yourself against something that’s airborne, think if somebody smoked a cigarette in this place, would I be able to smell it? So if somebody smoked a cigarette on the plane, even if they’re at the front of the plane, you’re going to end up smelling it. So that’s when you should wear a mask. Or if somebody smoked in the bathroom, even in 10 minutes, you’re going to be able to smell it.

HOLDEN: Well, of course, I remember the days when we used to fly before there was any limitation on smoking on the plane. And they had a smoking section. It was useless because they’d sit at the front of the plane to smoke and you could smell all over the plane no matter what. So, yeah, you know, an airborne virus with those kind of nanoparticles are going to get through the plane no matter what.

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Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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