Norman city officials received members of the Norman Regional Health System and OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler in its Friday press conference to provide COVID-19 updates for the Norman community.
Norman Mayor Breea Clark and Norman health experts reinforced the need for community awareness of COVID-19 security measures as cases continue to grow in the state, with the spread of the virus recently characterized as “unyielding” by the White House and state health experts warning hospital capacity and staffing will become an issue if the spread is not slowed.
Clark said all Norman COVID-19 ordinances are extended until March 1. She said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the mask mandate is particularly important as it protects “not only others but yourself.”
“From wearing seat belts and exercising to taking our vitamins and going to the dentist, wearing a mask needs to be added to that list of easy things we can all do to protect ourselves,” Clark said.
Clark said according to the latest state epidemiology report, from Aug. 1 to Nov. 1, the parts of the state without mask mandates experienced a 109 percent increase in infections compared to a 34 percent rise in cities with ordinances.
Further city council meetings will see changes beginning Nov. 24, according to Clark, after state lawmakers opted not to extend a previous exception to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act allowing public bodies to hold teleconferences, despite calls for an extension from leaders including Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman).
“Due to the state legislature's refusal to call a special session to extend our ability to meet virtually every city, county and governing agency in the state, we'll have to go back to in-person meetings, despite our numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continuing to rise,” Clark said.
Richie Splitt, president and CEO of Norman Regional Health System, thanked all NRHS employee healers — staff, ambulance services, police and fire — for their work alleviating stress and anxiety and restoring health and wellness in the Norman community.
“Thank you for the courage and compassion you pour into your professions. Thank you for your selfless service to others. You often forfeit personal time with your own loved ones in order to care for the loved ones of others,” Splitt said. “You ease the fear and anxiety that comes from the lack of control of one's personal crisis and failing health condition. And your sacrifices are often unseen. Today I want to take this opportunity to say to you, we see you and we thank you. Our hearts overflow with gratitude and pride for the work every day to keep us safe and healthy.”
Splitt said NRHS has been trying “to be a leader rather than a follower” and “to be proactive, rather than reactive” since the beginning of the pandemic.
Among the things NRHS has done was collaborating with City of Norman officials, the Emergency Operations Center and state and city health departments; the organization initiated COVID-19 triage assessment locations outside its hospitals and clinics; launched a mobile drive through COVID-19 test sites; partnered with IMMY labs headquartered in Norman to develop “highly reliable and effective COVID-19 test kits including PCR virus kits and the antibody testing,” and enrolled more than 200 physicians and other providers into its virtual health platforms so patients can stay connected to their physicians and not avoid healthcare.
“Norman Regional Health System is a public trust, not-for-profit health system. We play an essential role in delivering safe quality and trusted health care not only in Norman, but across our state,” Splitt said. “We have done that for nearly 75 years. We have done that throughout this pandemic and we will continue doing that as we go forward.”
NRHS Chief Nursing Officer Brittni McGill said NRHS has been collaborating with the hospitals in the Metroplex.
“As things evolve and change (and) we learn more, the pace of that change continues to be very fast paced,” McGill said. “That is in an effort to be responsive to our patients, not to get into a place of reactionary crisis. As community spread continues to increase, I'd like to emphasize the responsibility that we as citizens need to have. We need to be smart, we need to care about each other and we need to do that in an effort to help our community thrive.”
McGill said what NRHS knows at this point in regard to the COVID-19 vaccine is that it is coming “very soon.” She said they are receiving daily updates in collaboration with the CDC and Oklahoma State Health Department.
“(The daily updates) most likely will be a designated tier system protocol as to how that vaccine is administered,” McGill said. “Those calls are happening daily, and that plan is evolving. So we are prepared to do whatever we need to do based (on) the plan that will be given to us. This will most likely look like how we handle the flu vaccine within our health system.”
NHRS Chief Medical Officer Aaron Boyd said he’s been seeing more young patients infected with COVID-19.
“It seems that there's still more unknown when it comes to who gets ill, and who doesn't. We have seen teenagers, 50-year-olds and some 19-year-olds with COVID-related problems. (Patients) appear to be getting a little bit younger than they were in March. The average age of the people I see is now less than my own, which is an interesting phenomenon.”
Boyd said he is concerned about the flu season’s compounding effect on the ongoing pandemic.
“I'm always worried about the flu. A flu outbreak could really create a ‘twin-demic’ of COVID and the flu, so we're absolutely concerned about it,” Boyd said.
He said the community can help by getting a flu shot, wearing masks, washing hands, practicing physical distancing and “not medically distancing.” He explained some people stopped attending their doctor’s appointments, stopped getting their medicines refilled and stopped getting routine procedures and testing done.
Braztler attended the press conference virtually to provide the community with updates.
He said although there was a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in Norman, the rate of growth has not been “anywhere near” the rate of growth across the rest of the state.
"I think it gets back to the point that mayor Clark made (that) wearing a mask works,” Bratzler said. “Not only does wearing a mask protect the people around you, it protects you too, and so it's incredibly important, as we know that this particular infection is spreading in the community, that you wear a mask and try to do the physical distance which we've all heard so much about.”
Bratzler said he is aware of the impact OU has in the City of Norman and Cleveland County COVID-19 numbers. He said OU is very explicit in trying to reduce any negative impact from the university.
“As you know, we've had strict mask policies. We've worked very closely with mayor Clark and city council and others to make sure we're aligning our activities as much as possible,” Bratzler said. “We're going to do a lot of testing (on) students before they go home for Thanksgiving, but we're also planning to do substantial testing (on) the students when they come back to try to reduce introducing COVID-19 that may have come in from some of (the) other parts of the state where rates of transmission are much, much higher.”
He emphasized any person can be infected with the virus.
“You have to assume that anybody you encounter in the community in your home, in places of worship, shopping or (anywhere) else could be infected,” Bratzler said. “Protect yourself, and also have the courtesy to protect those around you by doing what I'm calling ‘universal COVID precautions,’ which all of you know — wear your mask, try to maintain physical distance and wash your hands frequently.”
Boyd said they are concerned about the holidays and urged the community to practice social distancing and follow CDC guidelines during any celebrations.
Clark said these are times of uncertainty and that the community can help by following health professionals’ guidance.
“Times are tough. There are many unknowns, there is perhaps a small light at the end of the tunnel, but no timeline on when we know we're going to get through this,” Clark said. “I know the rising numbers and unknowns regarding a timeline for vaccines can cause great anxiety and fear, but we can all fight back by listening to our medical professionals and wearing a mask, getting a flu shot.
"I want to emphasize that what we are experiencing right now is not the new normal. This is not normal in any way, shape, or form, but we will get through this. While I cannot tell you when these tough times will pass, I can guarantee you that they won't last forever.”