Oklahoma hits another pandemic milestone Saturday: 1 year since the state's first case of COVID-19 was publicly announced.
On March 6, 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt joined then-State Health Commissioner Gary Cox, Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Dr. Bruce Dart and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum to announce a man in his 50s who had recently traveled to Italy was the first Oklahoman with a confirmed case of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
At the time, the state had no testing infrastructure. The man was a suspected positive case until a sample was tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In the 12 months since the state's first case was announced, Oklahomans have endured shut downs, job losses and fear of the unknown. The virus was largely held in check for months, then cases started increasing as Gov. Kevin Stitt fully reopened the state, exploding as the holiday season arrived. That caused tens of thousands of new infections all at once and lead to a surge in deaths.
The state went from no testing capacity in March 2020 to widely available testing, and it’s become a national leader in how quickly residents are being vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some are starting to believe Oklahoma has seen the worst of it. OU epidemiologist Dr. Aaron Wendelboe estimates somewhere around 50% of Oklahomans now have some level of immunity, either through infection or vaccination. New case rates have declined to levels not seen since the early summer.
OU Health Children’s Hospital Infectious Diseases Specialist Doctor Donna Tyungu said in the next six to 12 months, however, people must stay cautious.
"You know, as cases drop, I think the tendency for the population will be to kind of let their guard down and everybody wants to travel and everybody wants to see family, and I’m afraid that we may backslide," Tyungu said during a panel discussion hosted by the health care system.
Tyungu also worries that doctors haven’t fully figured out the long-term effects of the pandemic on kids, both those who have fallen ill and those who have lost parents and grandparents to the disease. According to the CDC, more than 7,200 Oklahomans had died from COVID-19 as of Friday.
OU Health Physicians-Tulsa Hospitalist Dr. Jabraan Pasha said the pandemic has proved how "fragile" our way of life is. But as vaccinations allow people to return to lives close to what they consider normal, he expects community mental health will improve.
"It has done a lot for me to be vaccinated and for my parents to be vaccinated and for us to feel safe hugging each other again, to feel safe spending time with each other again. And I think as families are able to start doing that, as close friends are starting to be able to do that, I think that’s going to work wonders for all of our mental health," Pasha said.
As much as medical experts have learned about COVID-19 in the past year, they admit there are still many unknowns. OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said he's encouraged by continued declines in new cases and hospitalizations in the state, but those unknowns give him some pause about that.
"A variant strain that starts spreading could turn that around. Will this particular virus act like the influenza virus did in 1917 and 1918? You know, it hit one year, it lulled and then it hit again the next year. We don’t know whether this particular virus will be seasonal," Bratzler said.
OU Health Sciences Center Researcher Dr. William Hildebrand said in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people aren't thinking about the next one.
"What we still need to learn is this isn’t the last one we’re going to see as far as pandemics, infectious organisms like this. So, we’re going to see these again," Hildebrand said.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NPR this week the United States is at a pivotal point in the pandemic, where "hunkering down" for a couple more months while more and more people get vaccinated could get the nation to "a really great place by summer," but not taking precautions like masking and social distancing could lead to a resurgence of COVID-19.