New normal 

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, what will life in Oklahoma City be like in the coming months?

Oklahoma is now in phase three of its Open Up and Recover Safely (OURS) Plan. - UNSPLASH.COM / MANIPULATED BY PHILLIP DANNER
  • Unsplash.com / manipulated by Phillip Danner
  • Oklahoma is now in phase three of its Open Up and Recover Safely (OURS) Plan.
It’s hard to believe the massive shift in daily life that Oklahoma City residents have experienced since March.

For most of us, the turning point was March 11, when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 just before a home Thunder game. I had just sent my Rose State students off on spring break, not knowing it would be the last time I saw them face-to-face that semester.

Following an effort to flatten the curve through self-quarantining and the temporary shuttering of many businesses, Oklahoma began its Open Up and Recover Safely (OURS) Plan in late April.

We’re now in phase three of the plan, which started June 1. This phase removed limitations to gathering sizes and allowed businesses to reopen with social distancing measures in place.

Many restaurants that previously only offered takeout and curbside provide for seating both indoors and out. Gyms and exercise studios have reopened with limited capacity. Patrons often see tables, seats, exercise equipment and the floor taped off.

Unfortunately, June has also seen a series of record-breaking days for coronavirus numbers. For instance, on June 21, Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 478 new cases statewide. The case numbers within the Oklahoma City metro have risen too, but on a smaller scale.

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt is focused on the metro numbers.

In a statement posted to social media on June 16, Holt wrote that although there is an obvious uptick, hospitalizations have remained comparatively low. This is because roughly half of cases in June have been diagnosed in patients 35 and younger, so their symptoms are generally less severe.

“We reacted as we did early on because people were going into hospitals, people were dying,” Holt said via Zoom. “We didn’t react that way because people were just getting the equivalent of the flu. But that is usually how a person in that age demographic experiences COVID-19. They typically have milder symptoms.”

He said the city is not currently considering returning to government restrictions because “it’s a different pandemic” now than it was back in March and the spike is not yet resulting in increased hospitalizations.

“We look at it every day,” Holt said. “The reason I posted about it on social media is I understand that the more young people that have it, even if they’re not experiencing the worst effects of COVID-19, that’s just more carriers in our community that could eventually cause outbreaks amongst demographics that are not as fortunate.”

Dr. David Chansolme is Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Integris Health. He said the recent jump in cases was not a surprise.

“What’s making a difference now is that activities are opening back up and people are having more confidence in getting out, doing things, and I think that’s wonderful,” Chansolme said via Zoom. “But we have to understand that there is a price to pay on the other side of that with more coronavirus cases.”

Chansolme repeated what medical professionals have said for months. Those age 60 and older or those with underlying health conditions like heart disease, lung disease and autoimmune conditions are at greater risk. Chansolme has seen several patients die.

“But the bottom line is most people do get through this just fine,” he said.

Chansolme emphasized the need for everyone to continue handwashing, social distancing and wearing masks. Masks should cover both the mouth and nose.

click to enlarge UNSPLASH.COM / MANIPULATED BY PHILLIP DANNER
  • Unsplash.com / manipulated by Phillip Danner

Personal responsibility

Gary E. Raskob, Ph.D., serves as dean of Hudson College of Public Health at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. He is a Regents Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine.

While Raskob praised how businesses have responded to the pandemic, he said the general public is not always taking necessary precautions. Along with observing social distancing, he urged wearing a mask in public places.

“That is the single most significant thing we can do to prevent transmission of this virus,” he said via phone.

Raskob said urgent conversations about personal responsibility and how individual behavior influences public health are needed. He said this new era requires innovative socialization and temporary personal sacrifices in order to keep others safe.

“This principle is not new in public health,” Raskob said. “It’s the same thing we discuss when we talk about secondhand smoke. It’s the same thing we talk about when we talk about getting vaccinated.”

And what about the autumn? Many university campuses plan to return to in-class instruction, and Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon is scheduled for Oct. 4. Raskob said it’s too early to predict what will happen.

“The safety of those things happening will, to a large extent, depend on how we behave now,” he said.

At Integris, Chansolme said he advises patients with non-COVID-19 health issues to still see their health-care providers when necessary, to avoid exacerbating problems.

“We’re all beginning to learn what social distancing is in a restaurant,” Chansolme said, “what social distancing is in a protest, what social distancing is in a political rally. These are all things that we’re continuing to learn. We will learn a lot of lessons, and some of them we’ll learn the hard way.”

Although Chansolme had not seen new data on age ranges of new cases, he hypothesized that the surge of positive cases in patients under 35 could be attributed to their willingness to return to public spaces.

“A lot of my older patients are still very, very scared to go out,” he said.

Holt couldn’t say if that was the exact reason, but he acknowledged the strain the pandemic puts on all residents.

“I’m sure we’re all just bored of it, right?” Holt said. “I get it. We’re so over this. But that doesn’t matter to the virus.”

Both Holt and Raskob pointed out that it’s a generalization to assume all individuals age 18 to 35 will have milder symptoms. There is still a risk of serious health issues or transmission to vulnerable individuals.

Holt said we should not grow lax in taking precautions.

“We have got to accept that this new normal is going to be with us for many months, if not a couple years,” Holt said. “In that sense, it is a temporary normal, but it is not a short-term normal. It is something we’re going to have to accept for a while if we want to preserve our lives and our way of life.”

Visit coronavirus.health.ok.gov for the latest information on COVID-19 in Oklahoma.
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