A small school district in northeastern Oklahoma said Tuesday it is closing due to positive COVID-19 tests among students and staff, just as major hospitals in the state warned they are overwhelmed due to a surge in infections driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Dr. Stan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist with the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition, said a mask mandate is clearly needed.
"Until the virus can't find anybody to infect (through vaccinations), we don't get rid of it," Schwartz said. "We would really like to see masks be mandatory in as many situations as possible because partial measures are not going to be as effective as complete measures."
Chelsea Public School, a district of about 750 students about 40 miles northeast of Tulsa, announced its closure on social media.
"Due to a significant number of students and staff positive for COVID-19, Chelsea Public School will be out through Friday. Buildings are being deep cleaned," according to the district's Facebook page.
Phone calls to the district rang unanswered.
State Department of Education spokesperson Carrie Burkhart said she could not immediately confirm the district had shutdown, although districts must report any closure.
The delta-driven surge has resulted in a higher percentage of those infected being hospitalized, according to Dr. Dale Bratzler of OU Health.
Bratzler said an average of about 4,200 people were being treated daily for the virus at the peak in mid-January, compared to the current average reported by the state health department Tuesday of 2,187, or 53% of the peak.
Currently, 1,360 coronavirus patients are hospitalized, which is 70% of the early January high of 1,994, Bratzler said.
"The key message here is that a larger proportion of people who are being diagnosed now with COVID-19 are ending up in the hospital," Bratzler said.
The delta variant also moves quickly, said Dr. Bahar Malakouti of Mercy Hospital.
"Patients wake up with a cough on Monday and by Friday we're having to tell their families there is nothing else we can do" to save their lives, Malakouti said.
Virus patients are overwhelming hospitals, she said, forcing facilities to transfer patients, including accident victims or those suffering heart attacks and strokes.
"Since July 17 ... the number of daily transfer requests has doubled from around 30 requests a day to about 60" at Mercy, Malakouti said. "Mercy has been able to accept an average of 36% of those patients," down from about 90% previously.
Of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the past month, 93% are unvaccinated, with some asking for vaccinations while hospitalized, but too late for the vaccine to stop the infection, said Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer of Integris Health.
The Oklahoma City and Santa Fe South school districts in Oklahoma City have adopted masking policies that include opt-out options, despite a state law passed earlier this year banning school mask mandates.
The bill was signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has declined to issue an emergency order that would allow schools to implement masking requirements.
Stitt, who tested positive for the virus in July 2020 and received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in March, has commended the two school districts for allowing students to opt out.
Also on Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed a lower court ruling that the state must reinstate additional federal unemployment benefits. The court said it planned to combine two cases challenging Oklahoma's decision to end to the additional benefits and issue a final decision later.