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Capitol Insider: As Vaccinations Start, State Braces For Holiday COVID-19 Case Surge

Oklahoma State Department of Health
Lance Frye, M.D., Interim Health Commissioner

For months, infectious disease experts have warned of a big surge in COVID-19 cases in the fall and winter. Cases and deaths have gone up dramatically across the nation and Oklahoma has seen its numbers rise, as well. With the holidays upon us, and vaccines just now reaching high-risk groups, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley asked Oklahoma's interim commissioner of health, Dr. Lance Frye, about the state's response and plan for the new year. 


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. The first coronavirus vaccines have been shipped to states just in time for Christmas and a Christmas season like none we have ever seen. So, joining us to discuss public health and safety heading into the holidays is Dr. Lance Frye, interim commissioner of health for the State of Oklahoma. Dr. Frye, good to have you with us again.

Lance Frye, M.D. It's good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Dick Pryor: Thank you.

Shawn Ashley: Dr. Frye, the Pfizer vaccine is now being administered across the country, and a panel has just voted to recommend the FDA approve the Moderna vaccine for emergency use. What is the timetable for vaccinations in Oklahoma?

Lance Frye, M.D.: As you stated, we just started with the first vaccines. We expect there to be about a hundred and sixty-six thousand doses in Oklahoma during the month of December. This is if the Moderna goes through the full approval process, that there's still a couple of steps to it after that, but we're expecting its approval. And if that occurs, then they will be shipping, potentially shipping out the same day as the approval to get the first doses of that vaccine in Oklahoma, as well. And then we expect repeat shipments on a regular cadence every couple of weeks from both Pfizer and Moderna. And again, through the month of December, we'll have about one hundred sixty-six thousand doses and we've already started that distribution process and vaccinations.

Dick Pryor: Of those people in Oklahoma who have the opportunity to get the vaccine in Phase One what's been the response so far?

Lance Frye, M.D. Response has been good so far. Health care workers are that first group and they're also the people that have been on the front lines of this and they see the results of this virus. I've seen them break down in tears when they're getting the vaccine just out of relief and joy that there's some hope in sight. So, the uptake from the health care providers has been good.

Shawn Ashley: If people choose not to take the vaccine when their time comes, do they then go to the end of the line, or can they pick it up later on?

Lance Frye, M.D. Great question. No, they're not going to the end of the line. They can come in any time and get it. And we certainly want to encourage everyone to get it as soon as it's available for them. We're not going to refuse any of those late adopters.

Dick Pryor: How do you expect the use of vaccines to affect the public health orders that have been instituted in Oklahoma, if at all?

Lance Frye, M.D. Well, it's going to take some time to get the effect of the vaccine. It's a two-dose vaccine. The Pfizer one is three weeks apart and the Moderna one is basically a month apart. But the study showed that they had great efficacy starting ten days after that second shot. So, it's going to take at least a month to see the effects of the initial vaccines that we've just started rolling out. So, it's going to take a little while. And, you know, there’s, there are a lot of people in Oklahoma we're trying to move through in an orderly phased process. So, we certainly want everyone to continue to do what they're doing. I mean, this is no time to stop or let off of, you know, doing the things that we know how to stop the spread of a respiratory virus, you know. Wearing a mask. Washing your hands. Don't touch your face unless, you know, (it’s) necessary. And just watch your distance. Stay away from people while you're waiting for your vaccine and for that first month after you receive the vaccine.

Shawn Ashley: K through 12 school teachers and staff have been moved from Phase Three to Phase Two for the vaccine. From a public health standpoint, will Oklahoma schools be ready to return to in-person instruction in January?

Lance Frye, M.D. First of all, the CDC came out with an announcement saying that in their mind, kids are safer in school than they are out in the communities or at home. And there are multiple reasons why the children should be in in-person school and they recommend that. And that's with or without the vaccine. So, I think that it's understandable when you have a lot of people in a small setting enclosed area that there's some nerves about it, maybe a little overly cautious to begin with, but we also didn't have a lot of data at that time. Now they're saying they they've got the data. They can see that kids are…it is safe for them to be in school and that they're highly recommending that. So, as long as we follow those safety precautions to try to keep everyone safe, they should be okay. The vaccine is going to be amazing for them, but again, it's going to take a while to get there, so we want to encourage in- school learning, if possible anyway. The vaccine is just another tool in our belt to try to really help these teachers feel comfortable and safe in that environment.

Dick Pryor: What about faculty and staff in higher education? Will they move up to get the vaccine?

Lance Frye, M.D. They're still in Phase Three, which is, which is, you know, appropriate. We can't get everybody in Phase Two. That is, and if you think about it, those are young adults that are attending those schools. And so for them to be in a potentially either a virtual environment or in person environment is not as difficult for them to navigate as it is, let's say two working parents with three young children at home that normally would be in school during the day. So, they'll get it. It's just going to be a little bit longer. They'll be right after the K through 12.

Dick Pryor: When would you expect them to get it?

Lance Frye, M.D. That's a difficult question to answer because it's based off of not only our supply, but the uptake from people, as well. So, we haven't received our numbers for January yet. We don't know how many doses we're going to be getting. So, it's really difficult for us to guess. We're obviously the first part of the year will be definitely in Phase Two and they'll be in there somewhere, but it's hard to give more accurate numbers than that.

Shawn Ashley: Over the last several days, Oklahoma has been first or second among all the states in the number of new COVID-19 cases per one hundred thousand, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, we've been near three thousand new cases each day. New cases really seemed to explode in the fall. Why are cases rising here so much?

Lance Frye, M.D. It's a great question. First of all, I want to say that the CDC…I was watching the news while I was eating dinner last night, and I saw that they reported that we were the highest in the country and that just simply isn't true. They did a correction afterwards. They have come back and changed that data or somehow they had a miscalculation or problem with their data. So we are really about half of the rate of what they said we were on the news last night.

However, we do have a lot of cases. We have widespread community spread and we do have a lot of cases. We have remained fairly stable as far as our seven-day rolling average for the last week or two. Even at that level, that's too high, but at least we're not going up. So, we saw this around the nation. It wasn't just Oklahoma. Everywhere they had this increase the numbers. We don't really know exactly why. We thought initially there would be some seasonality to this virus and the numbers would go down in the summer and that didn't happen either.

So, Thanksgiving certainly probably had something to do with it, people getting together and that's why we want to urge some caution going into this holiday season as well, because we really don't want those numbers to keep going up. We want them to stay stable or go down.

Dick Pryor: Community spread certainly is a concern. The White House Coronavirus Task Force has been direct and sometimes critical in its evaluation of how Oklahoma has done in addressing COVID-19. It has pointed to some ways the state has fallen short, including not implementing a statewide mask mandate and not following certain guidelines for limits on bars and restaurants and other public spaces. With the holidays expected to bring about another big surge in infections here and around the country what will the state do that it has not already done to prevent a big increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths heading into 2021?

Lance Frye, M.D. As you know, the governor recently did an executive order where he extended the limitations on hours in bars and restaurants through the holiday for another thirty days, basically. And added some additional restrictions on indoor sporting events, the number of people that should be gathering in those and really just tried to do some more mitigation efforts moving through this time to really drive the facts into people that, you know, we need to be careful during this time. Let's not gather in large groups. If you gather together with family over the holidays, please make it safe, you know. Use social distancing, wearing a mask when you're with groups that are not your normal day to day household that you're normally with. And certainly, certainly if you have people in your family or friends around that are high risk, do take every precaution you can to try to keep them from getting ill and passing on the virus.

That's the hard thing about this virus is there are a lot of people that walk around that are asymptomatic. They don't even know they have it, but they can potentially spread it to someone or give it to someone that would be high risk and it could be devastating to. So, we all have to just act like everyone potentially has the virus and be very careful.

Dick Pryor: Dr. Lance Frye, interim commissioner of health for the state of Oklahoma, thanks for your time and your work and Happy Holidays.

Lance Frye, M.D. Thank you. Appreciate you having me on again.

Dick Pryor: You bet. And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

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