Oklahoma health officials look to 'more sustainable' phase of COVID-19 as cases decline

Dana Branham

With declining COVID-19 cases and the resignation of its commissioner, the Oklahoma Health Department is facing a transition.

Oklahoma — and the rest of the country — could be entering into a new stage of the pandemic.

After a surge in cases in late summer spurred by the fast-spreading delta variant overwhelmed hospitals and pushed the state’s total cases over 600,000, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases is now down 71.5% from a late-August peak.

Hospitals began publicly reporting their capacity figures in August to show how taxed their systems were. They ceased updates last week, saying they were encouraged by decreasing case numbers.

Health experts have said it’s too soon to know whether we’ll see another COVID-19 surge or what the winter may bring. But whether this is the final wave or not, they’ve said COVID-19 is likely to become “endemic,” meaning it’ll still be with us for a long time.

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A sample is sealed up as staff administer Covid test during an employee testing event at the Absentee Shawnee Tribe's Little Axe Health Center in August.

Dr. Lance Frye, who stepped down from the top Health Department position on Friday, said in his resignation letter that he did so as the department was shifting from pandemic response to “endemic surveillance.”

Keith Reed, who is now serving as interim health commissioner, said he believed Frye’s letter alluded to transitioning into a “more sustainable phase” of the pandemic.

“We probably will not be capturing every single data point that’s out there — trying to capture every test result and have it reporting into the system,” Reed said at a Wednesday briefing with reporters.

One example, Reed said, is a new “self-serve” portal for Oklahomans to get their COVID-19 test results via text message and conduct their own case investigation and contact tracing through an online portal.

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Reed said the design of the new program is meant both to “put some control in the hands of Oklahomans” and help the Health Department manage a large — though declining — number of COVID-19 cases in the state. The portal is set to launch Monday.

It could also help boost responses to the state’s contact tracing efforts. The Health Department said last month, when cases were  still high, that about half of people contacted for contact tracing in a given week participated in interviews.

The state’s COVID-19 surveillance could eventually look similar to the way it monitors flu activity every year.

“We don’t track every single positive flu case that occurs in a given flu season,” Reed said.

Instead, providers around the state report in to a central surveillance system, which allows health officials to see a snapshot of flu activity.

“We will be transitioning to a system like that in the future,” Reed said. “We’re not quite there yet, though.”

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Reed will lead the Health Department while the search for a new commissioner is underway. He said Wednesday the department is strong and “well-positioned to continue fighting for the best in public health.”

He said other recent resignations, including those of the department’s chief financial officer and the chief operating officer were unrelated to Frye’s departure.

“Absolute coincidence that those occurred,” he said, and he declined to speculate on reasons behind Frye’s resignation.

Asked about his own future with the Health Department, Reed said he was honored to serve temporarily as interim commissioner. He said his previous role as deputy commissioner has been a "good fit" for himself and the agency, and he's satisfied with that role.