Amid the COVID-19 surge in Oklahoma, how well can contact tracers track the spread of the virus?


OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As coronavirus numbers surge worse than any time during the pandemic, Oklahoma City officials say they’re not considering closures because there’s no evidence the spread is happening in public places. The problem with this logic is that identifying spread among strangers in public places in a state that is wide open is nearly impossible.

The virus is spreading across Oklahoma virtually unmitigated. Since Friday Oct 23, the state has seen 92 more Oklahomans dead as a result of COVID-19.

The virus is spreading across Oklahoma virtually unmitigated. Since Monday, the state has already seen 57 more Oklahomans dead as a result of COVID-19.

Last week after the Oklahoma City metro was elevated to Tier 2 of the state’s surge plan, News 4 questioned Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt about the city’s response. Over the summer, he said that if there was another spike in cases, city officials would consider more mitigation efforts. But on Friday, Mayor Holt said there are no plans in the works.

“None of those usual suspects are driving those cases, it’s things that we really can’t control. It’s widespread, and it’s happening really in situations like home gatherings or meetings or people getting together,” Mayor Holt said. “It’s not like it’s happening at grocery stores or it’s happening at bars.”

Not in grocery stores or bars? News 4 double checked with Oklahoma City County Health Department epidemiologist Eddie Withers.

“Is it safe to say that it’s not happening in this place and it is happening there? I don’t think so,” Withers said.

He said it’s true that contact tracers are identifying the spread mostly through close contacts, friends and family.

However, he also said contact tracing has inherent issues. Information relies on people making an effort to get tested, and in some situations, tracing is really difficult.

In fact, when it comes to pinpointing and contacting strangers who may have been near an infected person in a public place like a grocery store, bar, or gym, it’s almost impossible.

“It’s very difficult in restaurants and bar situations because many times you’re sitting next to people you don’t know,” said Dr. George Monks, the Oklahoma State Medical Association president.

He said that studies show that 80% of the time, people are not completely honest with contact tracers about where they have been or who they have been in contact with.

He said contact tracers he’s spoken to identified small gatherings, church, and school extra curriculars at the top of the list of locations where people are getting COVID-19

While he doesn’t want to promote more closures, Dr. Monks said people need to address the source of infection.

“Try to limit any kind of interaction outside our family group,” Dr. Monks said.

Withers said that the OCCHD regularly presents all of the data, including where contact tracers can identify spread, as well as what science already knows about the virus, including that it can be transmitted to people less than six feet away for a period of about 15 minutes.

“It’s happening everywhere, and that really should be the message, and people really should understand that,” Withers said. “You should be protecting yourself if you do decide to go to a bar, or an establishment that has a large number of people in it.”

Mayor Holt was not available for an interview Friday. The burden of making decisions like these doesn’t lie entirely with him. Enacting ordinances that require face masks, would limit business capacity, or mandate closures needs five city council votes to pass.

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