State public health officials are feeling optimistic about the pace of vaccinations and lower cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19, leading to changes this week in Oklahoma’s nursing home visitation policies and a new phase in the vaccination rollout.

Just two weeks after opening up vaccinations to residents with comorbidities and pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers and staff, the state opened up Phase 3 of its vaccination rollout on Tuesday. The new phase includes essential workers and caregivers and educators in CareerTech or higher education. For the most part, that’s everyone but about 555,000 Oklahomans in Phase 4 of the plan.

Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed said new vaccine supplies and wider availability of appointments across the state led the state to accelerate the rollout. Oklahomans can sign up for appointments at the state’s vaccination portal, which this week debuted a version in Spanish.

“Different parts of the state are getting through this at different rates,” Reed said. “We’ve said all along this is an overlapping process and we don’t wait to complete one group before we start the next. The door remains open for all the previous groups we’ve had, but we just want to maximize capacity that we have now and open it for more Oklahomans. We don’t like to have appointments open and not filled.”

With more residents and staff in nursing homes getting vaccines, the state updated its guidelines for safe visitation. Oklahoma closed visitation to long-term care facilities early in the pandemic last year, and families have been asking to loosen the restrictions for several months. The previous guidance was based on coronavirus test positivity in each county.

“Isolation and depression are a very real threat for Oklahomans who have been separated from their loved ones by COVID-19,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said Tuesday. “Now, with vaccinations being carried out at long term care centers across the state and case levels on the decline, we believe families can now safely see their loved ones.”

The state’s new guidance requires “essential caregivers” who make in-person visits to go through a short training video. It includes guidelines on how to manage scenarios when either the resident or caregiver, or both, have been vaccinated. Masks will still be required.

The Department of Corrections said it began vaccinating the most vulnerable inmates this week after receiving its first allotment of COVID-19 vaccines. That includes inmates 65 and older and those with comorbidities. The state health department will ship weekly allocations to DOC across the state. To date, more than 7,300 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, along with more than 1,000 staff members, according to the DOC’s latest update. Forty-nine inmates have died from COVID-19.

On Thursday, Stitt said he will lift the state’s last remaining coronavirus restrictions. Those included limits on public indoor gatherings and the wearing of masks in state office buildings. The governor made those changes official on Friday with an updated executive order. Most of the state’s larger cities continue to keep their mask ordinances in place.

The state’s medical association said Stitt’s move was premature and residents should continue to follow the latest recommendations on mask usage from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Friday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health said residents should still take precautions as much of the state’s schools and colleges head into spring break.

“We’re at a critical point in fighting back against COVID-19,” said Dr. Lance Frye, state health commissioner. “Cases and hospitalizations are beginning to decline — but they will almost certainly rise again if we take our foot off the gas now. As you take time during spring break to relax with loved ones, I urge you to continue avoiding large gatherings and following CDC guidelines.”

On Friday, the state reported another 422 new cases of coronavirus. The 7-day moving average of new daily cases fell to 544. The last time the daily average was that low was in early July.

Daily hospitalizations for COVID-19 have remained steady in the past week at around 300 per day. The number of those patients needing intensive care beds were below 100 this week after peaking at 501 in late December.

Oklahoma had 7,486 deaths from COVID-19, based on provisional totals from death certificates sent to the CDC. Those numbers will be revised as CDC receives additional data from the state.

Active cases fell to 11,598 by Friday, with just a few places recording weekly increases in active cases, according to an Epic Text Books analysis of ZIP code data from the health department. Among the places were ZIP codes in Tulsa, Chelsea, Oklahoma City and Edmond, although the weekly increases were less than a dozen cases.

ZIP codes in Lawton, Moore, Yukon, Muskogee and Tahlequah all had more than 150 total active cases by Friday, with the 73505 ZIP code in Lawton leading the way.   

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Epic Text Books since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 

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