After the Oklahoma State Department of Health stopped reporting daily COVID-19 numbers, local leaders are making efforts to restore more regular data sharing amid looming mask mandate end dates and rising cases elsewhere.
Norman Mayor Breea Clark was alerted to the change during a regular Emergency Management meeting and first voiced her concerns publicly in a Facebook post.
“How can Governor Kevin Stitt stand by and permit life-saving data to be withheld during a pandemic? Where is the transparency? We can't hide or deny our way out of this pandemic,” Clark wrote in the post. “Without this data, we have no idea if, when, or where outbreaks are happening in our community, and we just finally got down to manageable numbers that would allow us to reinstate effective contact tracing! This dangerous lack of information communicates to people that there's nothing to see here, and that things are back to normal. They are not.”
In the post, graphs provided by reporting agencies such as Global Epidemics — operated by Brown School of Public Health and Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics — and the New York Times display Oklahoma with either no data or as a ”low risk” level.
Currently, Global Epidemics has no data for Oklahoma, while the New York Times shows the majority of the state having less than 10 per 100,000 cases.
According to a Reuters article, cases in other parts of the U.S. are back on the rise, as 33 states have reported more new infections between March 21 and March 28 compared to the previous week.
In an interview with the Daily, Clark said there was “no logical reasoning” behind OSDH’s decision.
“We're in a pandemic. Data and science are the only things that are going to keep people safe, and the best tools that we have to predict outbreaks (and) control outbreaks,” Clark said. “Without this data, it's like we're putting on a blindfold and just hoping it will go away if we don't look at it, which is completely asinine and very dangerous.”
Oklahoma State Representative Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said Clark’s post influenced her to get in touch with a legislative liaison for OSDH. Virgin said they sent her a press release that had been issued March 17 by OSDH highlighting changes that would be coming and then directed her to another individual who has yet to respond. Virgin said other than the press release, nothing else was said to elected officials.
“I'm still seeking more information for the reasoning on this, but I haven't gotten anything yet,” Virgin said.
One possible answer suggested by Virgin is out-dated technology being used to collect data, but she says that answer doesn’t fully explain the decision.
“I know that the State Department of Health has talked a lot about how their technology is outdated,” Virgin said. “So that might be a part of it, but this is all data that they were collecting and publicizing before, so I'm not sure why they wouldn't be able to do it now.”
Clark said she wanted to thank Virgin, who reached out to her after seeing the post and has been searching for answers, and she is grateful for Oklahoma’s delegation for working well together.
“It's just, it's beyond and unfortunate,” Clark said. “And the fact that elected officials weren't primed for this is also embarrassing.”
Clark said she was further embarrassed by Oklahoma’s status as the only state not reporting this data despite having it. Clark said she’s proud of how the state has handled vaccinations, but believes the lack of reporting could hinder progress due to lack of transparency.
“We're not out of the woods yet when it comes to this, and our numbers were finally low enough where we could start doing manageable contact tracing and effective contact tracing and now we have nothing,” Clark said, “We are flying blind here. It's so frustrating. How am I supposed to make data driven decisions about reopening the city of Norman, when I have no data?”
Virgin said this lack of transparency has been “on par” for Oklahoma. She said in the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult to get any data and death numbers were being “severely” unreported.
“From the beginning, the data hasn't really been super useful for people to make decisions, and we even had the governor (who) was not sending White House reports to municipalities (and) was hiding those from them, which was really disappointing," Virgin said. “Again, it just makes it really tough for city councils to make these informed decisions that they need to make.”
It was discovered in August 2020 that Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s office withheld White House reports guiding Oklahoma’s COVID-19 response. The Center for Public Integrity published the reports for the public, where it was discovered that Oklahoma was 15th in the country for new cases and 11th for highest positivity rate.
OSDH’s decision has left everyone “in the dark,” Clark said, stating that OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler is “just as frustrated” as she is. Clark said Bratzler provides her with a breakdown of COVID-19 numbers for Cleveland County so she can compare to the rest of the country, but with the sudden lack of data, it has been difficult.
“Now my emails are like ‘Well, this is the best I could do with the data I've got,’ and our doctors should not have to send messages like that,” Clark said. “Especially, again, when we have the information and we're just choosing to withhold it. I mean, this is criminal in my opinion.”
Bratzler said it is “frustrating” that the information isn’t being released to the public, because he knows it’s being reported to the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services. Bratzler said while he understands it takes “resources” to make the data publicly available, the highlighted concern is that people will begin to behave as if the pandemic is over.
At OU Health hospitals, visitation policies have been loosened, but masking and social distancing protocols have not, Bratzler said. While many COVID-19 units have been converted back to their original purposes due to a lower number of patients, efforts to prevent the spread of the virus are still in place to keep numbers on a downward trend.
“That's a lot less stress now on our healthcare workers but we also have not loosened any of our restrictions around wearing masks and personal protective equipment in our clinical settings,” Bratzler said. “Because we know that there are still going to be people out there with COVID-19.”
Virgin said moving forward, she believes the state delegation will request the reporting go back to the way it was before as cities begin to reconsider mask ordinances.
“It seems like a really crucial time for everyone to have the most accurate information,” Virgin said. “So, regardless of the reasoning, I think that we will be calling for this data to be communicated again.”
Clark had constituents contact OSDH and Governor Stitt’s office, and said she knows Norman is not the only city angered by the decision. Clark said she doesn’t believe the reporting will go back to how it was previously, which she believes is “very unfortunate,” as the state is relying on citizens getting vaccinated.
“The last few clinics we've had in Norman have not filled up,” Clark said. “So it's a risky move, and I'm not willing to take risks with the lives of my residents and that's simply what it comes down to.”
Vaccination pods weren’t filling up anymore because those who wanted to be vaccinated quickly have already done so, Bratzler said. What he suggests is making the vaccine available in doctor’s offices.
“There are people who need to be vaccinated, but they still have some reluctance for whatever reason, and we know that when a doctor recommends a vaccine to a patient, they're much more likely to take the vaccine,” Bratzler said.
Bratzler said this would also benefit those unable to attend vaccination pods or people who may not be technologically inclined to register online for these events.
“That's why I think it's really important that we get the vaccines into doctor's offices,” Bratzler said. “So that when they have patients, they can schedule them to come into their office and get the vaccine.”