GROVE, Okla. — Dr. Sam Ratermann sums up the state of Northeast Oklahoma in the latest outbreak of COVID-19 with one word: “hot.”
Ratermann, the hospitalist for Integris Grove Hospital, said the two Integris hospitals in Delaware and Ottawa counties are encountering a “huge uptick” in COVID-19 patients linked specifically to the delta variant.
“Seventy-five percent of adults admitted over the weekend had COVID,” Ratermann said. “In one stretch of 10 patients admitted, nine had COVID. We’re seeing it in a lot younger patients — in the 18- to 35-year age range, and they are coming in sicker than they did the last time.”
Ratermann, who is also the president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians, blames a low vaccination rate in the age group for the uptick in COVID-19.
“What we are seeing with the delta variant is that it’s 50% more transmittable,” Ratermann said. “We’re feeding the virus unvaccinated people in rural America.”
The new strain also comes with different symptoms: headache, sore throat and muscle aches, rather than the loss of smell and taste.
“People don’t recognize they have COVID, so they aren’t getting tested as quickly,” Ratermann said, adding this means people are not isolating right away, causing the virus to spread at a higher rate.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Ratermann said, Oklahoma had 29 children younger than 17 hospitalized with COVID-19.
In Grove, the hospital is at capacity for COVID-19 patients based upon staffing availability. Miami’s hospital is also heading in the same direction.
Regional increases in cases in southern Missouri and Arkansas also means hospital beds are limited for patients needing a higher level of care for issues not related to COVID.
On June 1, there were 150 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oklahoma. As of July 19, the number was 380.
“We’ve more than doubled in less than six weeks, and that’s just those who are hospitalized,” Ratermann said.
On Tuesday, Ratermann called 20 hospital systems seeking a bed for a patient. Only one bed was available in Oklahoma City. In another case, he was forced to transfer another patient to a facility in Wichita, Kansas, because it was the only location available.
“This is not a situation we want anybody to be in,” Ratermann said. “It breaks my heart because we know vaccines do an exceptional job of preventing disease and death. Death due to COVID is almost a preventable outcome now.”
While the vaccine, available since early December, doesn’t stop a person from getting COVID-19, the illness isn’t as severe in a vaccinated patient when it occurs, commonly called a breakthrough case, Ratermann said.
He encourages everyone to get vaccinated. Of the patients currently hospitalized during this outbreak, 95% or more were not vaccinated.
“The vaccines are extremely safe,” Ratermann said. “The media sensationalized some of the adverse effects. Yes, they do happen, but we see adverse effects in every prescribed medication. The only way we will stop the spread is to increase the number of people vaccinated.”
For those choosing to refrain from the shot, Ratermann encourages a strict use of masks and social distancing. Vaccinated in December, Ratermann said he chooses to wear a mask when he’s in an indoor setting and when he’s in a large group of people.
Ratermann said that nationally, hospitals are encountering a staffing shortage — especially with nurses. A recent survey of travel nurses indicated at least 51% do not want to continue in the career.
“We’re having trouble finding people to work,” Ratermann said. “Health care workers are just plain tuckered out.”