OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma is expected to receive a 16% increase in its COVID-19 vaccine supply starting next week, but much of that will go toward administering the necessary second doses, health officials said.
Keith Reed, the deputy health commissioner, said Wednesday the state expects 103,350 doses — a 16% net increase over the week prior. The new federal administration appears to be allocating vaccine supply based off population, and is pro-rating Oklahoma’s amounts based on it rather than usage, Reed said.
Reed said about 28% of the 635,000 Oklahomans 65 and older have now been vaccinated against COVID-19. However, officials won’t consider expanding vaccine eligibility to the next group — Oklahomans with comorbidities — until considerably more Oklahomans 65-plus have had a chance to be vaccinated.
He said the state’s current appointment reservation system relies heavily on an online registration portal that may not be the best match for older Oklahomans. Officials want to ensure that as many available appointments as possible first go to the 65-plus age group, which has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
“I feel like it would be very unfair to this group for us to too quickly bring on another group and create unfair competition for these appointments,” Reed said.
Of the 65 new COVID-19 deaths reported Wednesday, Reed said 50 involved Oklahomans 65 or older.
For many Oklahomans at highest risk of COVID-19, urgency to get vaccinated is building as case numbers and deaths continue to climb and new mutated strains emerge and spread.
“In the short term, we feel confident that the vaccines that we have right now are effective and will remain effective, and we’re strongly encouraging everyone to go ahead and take those vaccines,” said Dr. Jared Taylor, the state’s epidemiologist.
Taylor, who had been serving in an interim capacity, accepted the role permanently Jan. 1.
Public health officials like Taylor also have been keeping a close eye on the mutated strains of COVID-19 popping up across the country including the B-117 strain, better known as the UK variant strain, and the so-called Brazilian strain.
“We are seeing some mutations that could potentially provide some challenges for the existing vaccines,” he said.
Taylor said the UK strain is more highly transmittable, but the two current vaccines seems to illicit an immune response that is just as efficacious as the original native strain that was used to derive the vaccines. However, he said there’s evidence that the Brazilian strain may have some differences that would make the current vaccines a little less effective.
With multiple strains circulating, he said there may be circumstances where a vaccine is 95% effective against one strain, 92% effective against another and 88% against a third.
“The good news is both vaccines were proven to be highly effective, and so if you lose a little bit of efficacy, you’ve still got a very good vaccine,” Taylor said. “And then the other good news is that the vaccines are actually quite easily adaptable.”
Mutations may require booster doses in the future, health officials said.
Dr. David Kendrick, department chair of medical informatics at OU’s School of Community Medicine, said the mutating COVID-19 virus is not unlike dealing with the influenza virus.
“Each year there’s a new flu shot with a new combination where experts try to predict what’s the strain going to be this year so this is definitely within our wheelhouse in the house of medicine to deal with,” he said.
Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said while the vaccine is still effective against some mutated strains — like the South African strain — the antibody response is slightly diminished when comparing the responses to other variants.
He said there may be a situation where people may need second booster doses, especially if these new strains take hold and become the dominant strains.
But he said there are still too many unknowns to know if vaccine doses may need to be modified in the future.
“The science is still too early on this,” he said.
Medical professionals, meanwhile, are urging Oklahomans to continue to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by wearing face coverings, social distancing and washing their hands frequently — even after they’ve been vaccinated.
For one, they said science still doesn’t yet know if it’s still possible to contract and spread the disease after being vaccinated.
Second, even though both vaccines are highly effective, there will still be a small percentage of the population who don’t obtain the necessary protection.
“We don’t want it to viewed (as) 'OK, now I’m bulletproof',” Taylor said.
Taylor said the light at the end of the tunnel could be near for COVID-weary Oklahomans — but everyone must work to slow the spread and try to reduce the risk of further virus mutations.
“What exactly that light is going to look like, and how long that tunnel is, I think is still yet to be fully defined,” he said. “And some of those are just going to be decisions that have to get made at some of the highest levels of how aggressively do we seek to contain this. Are we going to kind of develop a certain degree of complacency once we have it available? Are we going to seek to truly eradicate it or greatly contain it?”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.