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Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt shoots down mask mandate as medical professionals urge Oklahomans to mask, distance

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Governor Kevin Stitt

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on the OU sideline before the Red River Showdown at the Cotton Bowl, Oct. 12, 2019

During his Tuesday afternoon COVID-19 press conference, Gov. Kevin Stitt once again spoke against issuing a statewide mask mandate. State health officials also shared that a vaccine is coming for vulnerable Oklahomans.

Stitt was joined just outside the OU Medical Center Presbyterian Tower by leading health experts from OU Medicine and INTEGRIS Health to provide an update on the state’s grasp on the ongoing pandemic. This included the possibility of a state mask mandate and whether the state legislature will reconvene to extend an exemption to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act, which allowed virtual meetings to take place without being considered in violation of the act.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s executive order reports, Oklahoma is heading into the winter, recording more hospitalizations and the highest average of daily infections since the pandemic began. 

The OSDH Commissioner of Health, Dr. Lance Frye, said the statewide COVID-19 trends remain “concerning” as Oklahoma enters the eighth month of the pandemic.

“We have to remember that COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus that is spreading throughout our state,” Frye said. “We all must take this virus seriously, and we need to take aggressive actions to slow the speed of transmission.”

Frye said the OSDH was “aware” of the reported lack of ICU bed capacity in Tulsa due to a surge in COVID-19 patients requiring ICU care.

“Hospital capacity is always a concern and something we are monitoring daily,” Frye said. “(We) are working with local leaders and hospital coalitions in both metro areas to ensure that every Oklahoman that needs a hospital will have a bed.”

As of Nov. 9, the OSDH dashboard reports only 62 — or 7 percent — of adult ICU beds remain available statewide, with a record 1,102 Oklahomans hospitalized with COVID-19.

Dr. Cameron Mantor, OU Health’s chief medical officer, issued a somber warning to Oklahomans during the conference.

“If our current rate of infection is not curbed, we will run out of beds and out of staff,” Mantor said. “The hospitals and physicians cannot stop this pandemic. …. Staffing is becoming an issue.”

Stitt said to combat staffing and hospital bed availability, he has worked to remove “all red tape” that would typically prevent nursing students or nurses who are licensed in other states from transferring to and being hired by Oklahoma hospitals. Stitt also said he has reactivated the Regional Medical Response System, which is most often used during natural disasters and other emergencies, to match patients with a hospital that is able to provide the level or type of care they require.

As these measures are continually implemented, Mantor said the numbers remain bleak for the state. The rolling average of deaths in Oklahoma for the past week rose to 14 from just seven the week prior, Mantor said, and the number of active cases rose from 15,000 to 20,000 during that time.

Up to 20 percent of hospital beds statewide are currently occupied solely by COVID-19 patients, Mantor said, leaving far fewer beds available for patients in need of other types of care — including for things such as cancer and trauma.

Stitt said he is prepared to issue an executive order to halt elective surgeries in certain regions of the state, if Frye recommended he do so to clear bed space.

Dr. Julie Watson, vice president of medical affairs at INTEGRIS Health, offered repeated and passionate pleas to Oklahomans to trust the opinions of health care professionals when receiving information on COVID-19. 

“The science is clear. …. Since August 21, cities whose residents are wearing masks saw a 21 percent increase (in COVID-19 cases,)” Watson said, “compared to an 88 percent increase in cities whose residents were not.”

Watson assured Oklahomans multiple times in her remarks that wearing a mask was not political or an attempt at oppression.

“The science is real. …. Wearing a mask is not a sign of weakness or a political statement. …. It’s not about a mandate — the governor or government shouldn’t need to tell you what to do,” Watson said. “Please, if you trust us to take care of you when you come to us with cancer, or heart disease, or a car accident, trust us now when we say, ‘Please wear a mask.’”

Despite the urgent messaging from medical experts — including Mantor, who said he knows for certain wearing masks helps prevent the spread of respiratory viruses like COVID-19 — Stitt shot down the possibility of a statewide mask mandate in post-conference questions. He added that he prefers to leave decisions on mandates to local governments.

The availability of a COVID-19 vaccine was a point of optimism from officials at the press conference. However, as Frye said, early distribution of a vaccine to vulnerable populations and health care workers could begin as soon as early December.

Dr. David Chansolme, the medical director of infection prevention at INTEGRIS Health, said that news has been positive regarding Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The company claims it to be more than 90 percent effective, though Chansolme said he had yet to see the specific data. 

“The most recent data … shows the company’s vaccine is more effective at preventing COVID-19 than the placebo,” Chansolme said. “The news has been very, very good. …. If all goes as planned, emergency use for high-risk populations could be approved very, very soon.”

Chansolme said as the first doses of vaccine become available and more are provided, the vaccine will be disseminated to Oklahomans in a “cascading fashion” starting with high-risk populations and health care workers. Mantor said doses of the vaccine are still being produced even as trials are incomplete, something he’s not certain has ever happened “to (his) knowledge.”

Although Mantor said the state and other Oklahoma health groups have not entered into a formal contract for the distribution of a vaccine, talks may begin soon.

Finally, Stitt addressed a complication to continued socially distant meetings hours after Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) urged him to extend an exemption to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act during her Tuesday press conference.

Stitt said it was unlikely the state legislature would enter a special session only to address a single piece of legislation. The state legislature will not reconvene until Feb. 1, 2021, meaning, with the exemption’s expiration, no bodies outside of a short list of exceptions noted in the Open Meetings Act will be able to hold meetings virtually after Nov. 15.

If the exemption expires, groups such as the OU Student Government Association will be required to meet in person or be considered in violation of the Open Meetings Act, a point of concern for the OU Graduate Student Senate during its most recent meeting.

Despite ultimately declining to take any executive action, Stitt did urge Oklahomans to avoid complacency as the pandemic continues.

“You’ve heard me say this for months, but we cannot become complacent,” Stitt said. “If you’ve taken your foot off the gas, I’m asking you to tighten things up and continue to do your part (through masking and social distancing).”

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