Health officials concerned about COVID-19 outbreaks in rural Oklahoma

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP/KFOR) – The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the planet has surpassed 40 million, but experts say that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true impact of the pandemic that has upended life and work around the world.

The milestone was hit Monday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University, which collates reports from around the world.

The actual worldwide tally of COVID-19 cases is likely to be far higher, as testing has been uneven or limited, many people have had no symptoms and some governments have concealed the true number of cases. To date, more than 1.1 million confirmed virus deaths have been reported, although experts also believe that number is an undercount.

The U.S., India and Brazil are reporting by far the highest numbers of cases — 8.1 million, 7.5 million and 5.2 million respectively — although the global increase in recent weeks has been driven by a surge in Europe, which has seen over 240,000 confirmed virus deaths in the pandemic so far.

In the U.S., some states are trying more targeted measures as cases continue to rise across the country. New York’s new round of virus shutdowns zeroes in on individual neighborhoods, closing schools and businesses in hot spots measuring just a couple of square miles.

As of last week, new cases per day were on the rise in 44 U.S. states, with many of the biggest surges in the Midwest and Great Plains, where resistance to wearing masks and taking other precautions has been running high and the virus has often been seen as just a big-city problem. Deaths per day were climbing in 30 states.

On Monday, data from Oklahoma State Department of Health shows that the state has had 108,073 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March.

OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler says the response to the virus has been vastly different across the globe.

“So I think one of the things that we know is that many countries of the world have had a much more coordinated response to control the coronavirus outbreak. So you mentioned India, they locked down their borders. They stopped all domestic and international travel. They did very, very extensive contact tracing, even using tools like phone apps and other electronic surveillance mechanisms to make sure that people who are infected actually stayed at home and didn’t go out and infect other people. So they had much more aggressive and coordinated, standardized approaches across the nation whereas in the United States, what we’ve seen and even in Oklahoma, we have a fragmented approach. It’s up to each and every state to make a decision. Or in Oklahoma right now, it’s up to each and every community to make a decision about some of the restrictions that they implement that might help to slow the spread of the virus,” Dr. Bratzler said.

When it comes to Oklahoma, many of the localized outbreaks have been in rural parts of the state.

“I actually was down on the Norman campus yesterday talking to a lot of the students, and many of them come from rural parts of Oklahoma and part of our conversation was that they’re actually living in a place right now on the university campus where the rate of transmission, the virus, is much, much lower than they’re going to see back in many of their home communities. Many of which don’t have coordinated mask mandates and things like we do in both the City of Norman and campus, so it’s very concerning that this virus has become a very rural disease. If you look at the population incidence of COVID-19 and some of our rural counties, it’s two to three times higher than it is in Oklahoma County,” he said.

Although health officials in the state are trying to slow the spread of the virus, Dr. Bratzler says there have been reports of people not cooperating with contact tracers.

“Well, so one of my concerns right now is that increasingly I’m hearing about people who tested positive and haven’t been getting calls to do the contact tracing, so I don’t know if the system has gotten overwhelmed. You know, we’re seeing more than 1,100 new cases every single day in Oklahoma right now, and that’s a lot of work. Now, the health department has done a really good job of putting together their call center. They trained a lot of people to do contact tracing, but I am hearing people report that when they tested positive, they’re not getting the follow-up calls to do the contact tracing. The other thing that’s very concerning, Dr. Bruce Dart, with the Tulsa City-County Health Department, talked this week about the lack of cooperation. Contact tracers contacting people who have been positive but they won’t tell them who they’ve been in contact with or where they’ve been that might help us get this pandemic under control in Oklahoma,” he said.

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