What are the leading causes of death in Oklahoma?

Economy , Culture & the Family

Mike Brake | July 15, 2020

What are the leading causes of death in Oklahoma?

Mike Brake

While the coronavirus is a real public health issue, it may not turn out to be the taker of life it was initially envisioned to be.

This according to Dr. William Paiva, executive director of the Center for Health Systems Innovation at Oklahoma State University. “Oklahoma is not burning down because of COVID,” he said. “Yes, COVID is an issue, but we have a lot of public health issues in Oklahoma.”

Dr. Paiva examined disease mortality data from 2017. Since the first COVID fatality in the state did not occur until March 19, 2020, and no one knows how many more deaths will take place before the end of the year, there is no way until then to compare mortality totals. However, he was able to extrapolate a daily death rate for the 11 leading causes of death in the state:

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Worldometers 

Thus the daily death rate from COVID is very close to that from diabetes. If deaths continue at the current rate the annual total may also come close to that from diabetes as well.

“Our death rate early on was higher than it is now, sometimes 20 or more a day,” Dr. Paiva noted. He said the declining death rate is despite increased numbers of positive tests, which are skewing younger and often involve patients with no apparent symptoms. “Right now the daily rate is probably about 2.5 deaths per day,” he said.  

Dr. Paiva said that North Carolina has tested widely, revealing approximately 13 percent of the general population has been exposed to coronavirus. "If you extend that to Oklahoma you probably have 500,000 or 600,000 people walking around Oklahoma who have been exposed to coronavirus," he said. "Currently, we have approximately 20,000 positive tests in Oklahoma so I would not be surprised if the positive test numbers to go higher as more and more people get tested and employers require their employees to be tested regardless of symptoms. As more and more people become positive, we will be getting closer and closer to developing herd immunity.”

Initially, testing focused almost exclusively on those presenting with symptoms, often on admission to hospitals, he said. That made COVID look more threatening to life that it has turned out to be for most people.

Dr. Paiva said that, in addition to positive tests, the key indicators to follow in judging COVID as a public health threat are hospitalizations and deaths. Recently, both have remained fairly steady in Oklahoma, with daily deaths declining over the last couple of months from their peak in March.

From the beginning, deaths have been heavily skewed to those over 65 and/or those with chronic or debilitating health issues. “Those people are still the ones who carry the highest risk and need to be careful,” he said.

He added that many of the top 11 killers are preventable or at least made less likely by changes in lifestyle, diets, the consumption of addictive substances, and mental health treatment availability. COVID, by contrast, can only be prevented by avoiding the virus.

Overall, Dr. Paiva noted, the state’s experience with COVID to date has not resulted in the kind of mortality initially feared or projected early on. "It seems like an eternity ago when we first started this journey, but our knowledge of mortality rates, people most at risk, and the virus infectivity have improved dramatically over the last four to five months, all of which have moved in a positive direction from the initial projections."

Mike Brake


Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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