COVID spike pushes health system past previous records

TAHLEQUAH – A surge in COVID-19 cases likely linked to the omicron variant broke records within the Cherokee Nation health system during the first week of January.

CN Health Services reported 1,934 positive cases from 7,644 tests. That’s more than 500 new cases of COVID-19 during any single week.

“It’s really kind of distressing to see we’re back where we were,” Tribal Councilor Mike Shambaugh said during a Health Committee meeting Jan. 10.

Dr. David Gahn, CN Public Health medical director, described the latest spike as “an extremely rapid rise in the number of cases” from 200 a week to 600, then nearly 2,000.

“This week we’ll have even more,” he said. “Oklahoma numbers are on the same trajectory, breaking records.”

As of Jan. 10 in Oklahoma, there were 61,912 active cases.

“Our hospitals are very full, and they’re full of patients that have other conditions (than COVID-19) and they need to be in the hospital” also, Oklahoma Hospital Association President Patti Davis said during a Jan. 4 news conference.

On Jan. 8, the total number of statewide new cases hit 9,320, then 9,608 the following day, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. As 2022 began, the three-day average number of COVID hospitalizations in Oklahoma topped 1,000 for the first time in three months.

The state health department said the highly contagious omicron variant accounts for 57% of the state’s coronavirus cases, and health officials say more than 90% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Gahn said he was “very confident” that more than 80% of the CN cases are the omicron variant. Within the tribe’s health system, the focus is currently centered on case investigations and contact-tracing calls to patients and employees.

“All public health staff have switched to response to the COVID surge,” said Lisa Pivec, the CN’s senior director of public health. “Just please keep our staff in your thoughts. Everyone is stressed at this time.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54% of Oklahomans are vaccinated against COVID-19.

“That’s not a high number,” Gahn said. “Of those fully vaccinated, only 32% have received the booster. So there’s still a huge portion of our population that’s susceptible to the virus. Still, vaccination and getting boosted is your best protection in staying out of the hospital.”

A 2021 study at the tribe’s W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah showed that out of 274 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 270 were unvaccinated, Gahn said.

“The same seems to be true with the omicron variant,” he added.

One patient was on a ventilator as of Jan. 10, according to health leaders, while all intensive care unit beds were full. A total of 11 patients at Hastings had COVID, according to Wayne Coldwell, deputy executive director of internal operations at CN Health Services.

“As you can imagine, the emergency department has seen a large volume of patients coming in that are ill,” he said. “We have been offering testing outside the emergency department to take that task off the emergency department and give them a little relief.”

In response to the surge in COVID-19 cases, the tribe plans to test its employees twice a week via the same company used by Cherokee Nation Businesses.

“We’re going to be testing some non-health employees this week, and we’ll be phasing in the others in the coming days and weeks,” acting Chief of Staff Corey Bunch said. “It is our goal to not only keep our employees and our communities safe, but it’s also our goal to keep our services open without having to quarantine large groups of people.”

Bunch added that employees are encouraged to wear masks on site and get vaccinated.

“If all of our employees are wearing their mask, it really cuts down on the risk,” he said. “Also being fully vaccinated including the booster makes a huge difference. So that’s what we encourage our employees to do. If we can do that, we’ll really cut down on the spread at the workplace.”

Oklahoma has logged a total of 764,651 COVID-19 cases and 12,650 related deaths.