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A new study finds Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of vaccine-preventable COVID deaths in the country

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Gov. Kevin Stitt
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Gov. Kevin Stitt (right) and then-Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Lance Frye tour the Oklahoma Public Health Laboratory on Jan. 21, 2021, shortly after Stitt's administration abruptly uprooted and moved the lab from Oklahoma City to Stillwater to be co-housed with the new Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence.

A new analysis of COVID-19 trends shows Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of vaccine-preventable coronavirus deaths in the U.S.

The Brown University and Microsoft AI Health study, first reported by NPR, found Oklahoma had the fifth highest preventable COVID-19 death rate, behind only Kentucky, Tennessee, Wyoming and West Virginia.

If 100% of eligible adults had been fully vaccinated, the analysis concludes, 5,833 of the 14,380 Oklahomans known to have been killed by the virus might still be alive today.

"The findings were stark," said Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma, reached by phone Tuesday. "And even if you looked at if we hit 85% [fully vaccinated] — which we haven't yet; we're only at about two-thirds of people 18 and over who've been vaccinated — it would have been 3,600 fewer deaths in Oklahoma."

"That's a lot of people," Bratzler said.

Nationally, the study found nearly 319,000 of the roughly one million Americans killed by the virus so far may not have died had the nation achieved a higher vaccination rate. NPR noted the researchers said their analysis "may be overestimating the impact of vaccines, since the mostly Republican-led states that had lower vaccination rates also underused other pandemic-fighting tools, such as mask and social distancing requirements."

Asked for comment about the study and its findings regarding the thousands of preventable deaths, Oklahoma State Department of Health public information officer Erica Rankin-Riley did not directly address the analysis, instead sending the following statement from the department:

"The loss of life from COVID-19 across the world and in Oklahoma has been tragic. Unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, we now have tools, including vaccines, that we know work in protecting against severe illness.

"We have always encouraged Oklahomans to get vaccinated, including those who are eligible for a booster dose. We would especially recommend those who are immunocompromised to follow the CDC guidance regarding appropriate timing for their boosters. We know that getting the COVID-19 vaccine provides a heightened protection against someone becoming hospitalized or dying from COVID. There is ample supply of vaccine throughout the state for Oklahomans seeking a first, second or booster dose. Vaccine appointments can be found online at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov," the statement concluded.

Oklahoma has consistently performed poorly in national rankings of states by percent of the population fully vaccinated. As of Tuesday morning, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the state 37th in the nation by that metric.

Oklahoma has also had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the U.S. According to Johns Hopkins University, the state had the highest COVID death rate in the country in 2021.

Even before vaccines were available, Oklahoma was warned by the Trump White House in October of 2020 that many of the state's deaths from the virus could have been prevented. A governor's spokesperson at the time said they "vehemently dispute[d] the editorial opinion" from the Trump administration's COVID-19 task force, led by then-Vice President Mike Pence.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.