While Oklahoma appears to be trending well in terms of COVID-19 infection and vaccination rates, public health experts and officials are warning that things could change without vigilance.
"Listen, everyone -- the pandemic is not over yet," said Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, an epidemiologist and professor at the OU Health Sciences Center who formerly served as Oklahoma's state epidemiologist, on a Tuesday press briefing held virtually by the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition. "We have not dropped to levels of transmission that are sustainable, that we can control."
Wendelboe said taking a reckless approach to eschewing mitigation measures like masking and distancing could lead to surges in infections, which many states are experiencing after loosening restrictions.
"It is not time to lift masking ordinances," Wendelboe said. "Let's keep masking at least through the end of spring. I want to see Oklahoma lead the nation by preventing COVID-related deaths and COVID-related hospitalizations. I do not want to see Oklahoma follow some of the other states that are experiencing a surge in cases right now."
Joli Stone, deputy state epidemiologist at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said she agrees that things are trending in the right direction but also agrees that "the pandemic is not over" and encouraged Oklahomans to continue to wear masks, keep social distance and get the vaccine.
"While it may not be 100% sunshine and roses, we are making good strides here in Oklahoma," Stone said.
Stone said getting to herd immunity -- at least 80% of Oklahomans immune to the virus via either infection or vaccination -- could be a heavy lift.
"Because of the way that this virus is, unfortunately it will probably never be eradicated," Stone said, "but we can eventually manage it. But that is going to take everybody involved. The only way to truly be able to manage it will be to get vaccinated, continue to wear a mask when we have higher numbers, especially when there's unvaccinated persons around, follow those other mitigation techniques and isolate and quarantine when necessary."
"If we don't achieve that sustainability when it comes to herd immunity, then likely, you know, masking will still be part of our daily lives," Stone said.
According to CDC data, as of Tuesday Oklahoma ranked 21st nationally for percentage of the population who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 20th nationally for percentage of the population fully vaccinated.