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Watch Now: 'I didn't know if I'd ever see him again': COVID-19 survivors share the aftermath of recovery

Barely days into the infection, Michael Ward was isolated in a hospital bed with debilitating aches and pain, waking nightmares and hallucinations.

He tested positive for COVID-19 around March 31 and was hospitalized shortly thereafter. There were no visitors, except for nurses, and the nurses would have to don their protective equipment — latex gloves, face masks, a face shield, a smock and shoe coverings — to check on him. It was about a 6-minute process.

Victoria Ward, his wife, could not even come inside the building, a far cry from when she and other family members could visit his room after open-heart surgery years ago. But this time, no one came in or out except for on-duty professionals because the virus is that infectious.

“If I had to say, the worst part about this actually wasn’t this physical rehab, and the dizziness, and the off-balance, and the fatigue that hits everyone once and a while and knocks me down — the worst part is trying to get everything back right in my head to get a good night’s sleep,” Michael Ward said.

Five days after her husband went to the hospital, Victoria Ward began developing symptoms of COVID-19. She tested positive about April 5. By comparison, her illness was mild but still profound.

Neither are infectious anymore. By public health definitions, they are among the 29,000 Oklahomans considered recovered, but Michael Ward is still pushing back against the virus’ aftermath.

Public health officials define COVID-19 recovery as being at least 10 days past the onset of symptoms, at least 24 hours with no fever and without the use of fever-reducing medication and symptoms have improved.

Those are the conditions that must be met, according to federal, state and local health officials. Those are also the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for when a patient can be around others again and end home isolation.

Researchers have discovered that more than a third of COVID-19 survivors report that they “had not returned to their usual state of health” three weeks after testing positive, according to CDC research. Among people between 18 and 34 years old, one in five had not returned to that state of health in ensuing weeks. That group of surveyed individuals reported having no chronic medical conditions.

That age group also makes up the largest percentage — about 35.9% — of Oklahoma’s 36,487 COVID-19 cases, according to OSDH data published Friday. Of that cumulative count, about 80% are considered recovered.

About five days after her husband was hospitalized, Victoria Ward began to have difficulty breathing, along with fatigue, a dry cough and a light fever. Initially, she thought it was allergies. But it was coronavirus and she was forced to isolate at home with their spaniel, Dash.

“Home isolation is not terribly uncomfortable,” she said. “It would have been very tolerable, except while I was going through that I was worried to death I might lose my husband.”

Michael Ward was hospitalized until about April 27. The worst of it, he said, was the psychological toll it took.

He is still working through physical therapy to regain his balance. Five or six days out of the week, he is performing some sort of exercise, be it physical therapy or water aerobics.

Ward did not have breathing issues from the virus; he said it attacked him neurologically. It caused vivid hallucinations while in the hospital. He had waking nightmares about fires in London theater houses and dreams where his daughters were visiting. He had extreme muscle stiffness and aches.

The virus “blew out” his inner ear, causing balance issues. During the last week of July, he said he was close to 70% of where he was before contracting the novel coronavirus.

Medicine is not foreign to the Wards. Michael has been a family physician for more than four decades, and Victoria has a history in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like for somebody that had no medical experience and was sitting in a room, alone, for 16 to 18 hours a day, and I think that that’s going to take a toll emotionally, as well as physically, on people who survive coronavirus,” Michael Ward said.

Not long after his positive test in late March, the pain and aches were so severe he could not get out of bed. His wife called an ambulance and he was taken to Hillcrest Hospital South.

“He didn’t know I’d called the ambulance — he was that sick,” Victoria Ward said.

She followed them to the hospital, saw police officers coming to intercept her as she exited her car, and was given about a half a minute to see her husband before he was placed in isolation.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again,” she said.

At the end of his hospital stay, Michael Ward couldn’t walk. He had lost 50 pounds.

“I still have COVID days, where I have unusual fatigue for no reason,” he said.

Dr. Brian Worley, medical director at Hillcrest Hospital South’s intensive care unit, said COVID-19 “just doesn’t follow a routine course” for the patients he has seen.

Worley said medical professionals can have an idea of how long patients with pneumonia, influenza or other respiratory issues will be in the hospital. However, COVID-19 has been so varied and is so new that its usual presentation in severe cases is not exactly known.

Symptoms can worsen with “blinding velocity,” he said, and the fatigue and shortness of breath patients may develop is just the “most profound.” It’s as if the patient is running a 100-yard dash constantly, when they may just be sitting and resting.

“These patients, the speed with which they get sick is just mind-boggling,” Worley said. “I’ve never seen a group of patients who will be doing OK one minute and just falling apart the next.”

Recovered, to him, means a patient is back to 100% or close to it. For a lot of the patients who come through his ICU, it may be a year before they can get back in shape.

COVID-19, and the stress of it, can exacerbate an existing condition. Worley said the most common aggravation he has seen has stemmed from weight and diabetes.

Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU Medical Center’s chief COVID-19 officer, referenced the CDC research on Wednesday during a briefing. He also referenced European research that showed frequent evidence — 78% of the studied patients — of heart inflammation from the virus.

“It just simply highlighted that a lot of people will have ongoing symptoms that may last for longer periods of time beyond that time beyond that time frame the state health department defines as recovered,” Bratzler said.


COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

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Stitt loses leverage at gaming compact negotiating table

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt’s recent loss in a high-profile legal battle over gaming compacts put tribes in better position at the negotiating table.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti sided with the tribes who sued Stitt, saying their gaming compacts automatically renewed.

Tribes took the action after the governor said Class III gaming would be illegal after Dec. 31, 2019, under his belief that their compacts expired.

More than a year ago, Stitt caused a buzz in the gaming community with a Tulsa World opinion piece saying the compacts expired Jan. 1, needed to be renegotiated and that he was seeking higher fees.

Negotiations continued to deteriorate and a war of words between Stitt and the tribes ensued.

Former State Treasurer Scott Meacham negotiated the compacts more than 15 years ago while serving as then-Gov. Brad Henry’s secretary of finance and revenue.

DeGiusti’s ruling didn’t surprise Meacham, an attorney who is the CEO and director of i2E, a management company.

“I thought it was our intent when we drafted the compacts that they would auto renew as long as gaming was still going on at the horse tracks in Oklahoma,” Meacham said.

On Oct. 17, the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission, an executive agency, quietly approved the final horse track gaming and racing license applications. The action proved to be critical in the tribes’ case. Supporters said it triggered automatic renewal of tribal gaming compacts.

DeGiusti agreed, writing, “No more was required for the Compacts to automatically renew on January 1, 2020, for a successive 15-year term.”

Meacham said compact drafters initially allowed limited Class III gaming, anticipating that the tribes would return and seek an expansion of games.

Two years ago, lawmakers were faced with a budget crisis and looking for additional revenue. They wound up giving up a key negotiating chip.

Passed in 2018, House Bill 3375 created a supplement to the compacts for ball and dice games. The measure was expected to generate an estimated $24 million for the state in fiscal year 2019.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, was against the measure in part because he felt it would weaken the state’s position.

“The state went ahead and added most of the additional gaming they didn’t already have,” Meacham said. “I think the state sort of gave up a lot of its bargaining chips so to speak when it did that.”

Because the court ruled that the compacts automatically renewed, Stitt “doesn’t have a whole lot to give the tribes,” he said.

Meacham said tribes, on more than one occasion, have indicated they are willing to discuss a different fee structure.

“I would take them up on that offer,” he said.

“I think his leverage was built on the myth that the compact terminated — that no one outside his office believed, certainly not the federal judge,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “He has been brought back to reality and the reality is we are at the beginning of a new, 15-year compact.”

Sports betting has been discussed as an option for additional gaming in tribal casinos.

Matthew Morgan is chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

“There may be some tribes that want to add to player offerings,” Morgan said. “At the end of the day, it all has to make sense economically for both sides really.”

Morgan said he is always hopeful the state-tribal relationship can be improved.

Hoskin is taking a wait-and-see attitude. But the fight has done immeasurable injury to the positive relationship the tribes had enjoyed with the state, he said.

“We are always open for the first time to get an actual, reasonable proposal from the governor on enhancing tribal gaming,” Hoskin said. “The ball is in his court.”

Stitt was asked Thursday how he planned to proceed in light of the federal court decision.

“Our attorneys are still looking at that,” Stitt said. “I think Oklahomans know that I am trying to get a better deal for Oklahoma.”

He said the state has about 60 days to decide whether or not it will appeal the decision.

The state has paid more than $1.5 million in legal and other fees connected to the dispute.


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Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming

TPS message to parents: Schools no longer in 'crisis mode'

Back-to-school season during a pandemic has parents in many districts staring down deadlines about school choice options many never before considered.

What do local teachers and school leaders want parents to know?

School this fall will look nothing like the emergency response they cobbled together amid a sudden, statewide shutdown order in the spring.

“The first key difference is preparation. Everyone has had this on their mind all summer,” said Akela Leach, who teaches fifth grade language arts and social studies at Tulsa’s Lanier Elementary School. “Teachers didn’t have their materials — we weren’t able to get back in our classrooms. Everyone was just operating off of panic mode and there were so many platforms.

“I never even heard of Zoom before March.”

Millions in state and local dollars have been poured into online learning access because at-home learning or “distance learning” is expected to be a new norm — and many local schools are reallocating teachers to serve local students in virtual academies for parents who want to forgo any in-school instruction for 2020-21.

So how do you best keep your child safe while also getting them the best education possible during what promises to be a most extraordinary academic year?

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist says the choice between keeping your children enrolled in their current schools — which will likely alternate between distance learning when rates of community spread of the coronavirus virus are high and in-person instruction in the classroom when rates are low enough and enrolling them in a dedicated virtual school option — boils down to this.

“I would encourage a family whose desire is to have their children back in school, in person, as soon as it is safe enough to do so to choose our traditional school enrollment,” Gist said. “Our distance learning model prioritizes direct connection to the child’s assigned teachers and their classmates.

“Most students will be more successful in our distance learning model due to the high level of self-direction and self-pacing that our virtual academy and other virtual schools require. It definitely works very well for some — but not for most.”

Leach said many children may have received quite a bit of review work rather than new instruction, and that was also because teachers were focused on helping them retain what they had just learned and helping them cope with their new circumstances.

“It was a traumatic experience. We are trained to pay attention to that and to center on that first,” she said. “That maintaining of community and feeling like I’m a part of Lanier, we will be more prepared to deal with that so students don’t feel as isolated as they might have.”

From Day 1 of the new year, which is expected to begin in distance-learning mode, Leach’s students will be getting the kind of instruction parents expect and daily, personal interaction with teachers and classmates they know.

Her lessons will be aligned to state academic standards and sequenced to build upon each other, and students will have workbooks and other off-computer work to reinforce those lessons and then small student-group check-ins by Leach.

“They will not be expected to sit in front of a computer for hours,” she said. “The new social studies textbooks are more engaging, but there is an online component that is also really good and now critical to accomplishing distance learning. It’s not about the gadgets and the glitz — it’s quality content.

“If your kid is going to the Tulsa Virtual Academy or in distance learning, they are still going to be getting quality curriculum that has gone through a lot of processes to even be adopted by our district.”

Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics at TPS, said significant, new investments with state and local funding in digital curriculum and laptops and mobile internet access devices for students, intensive training to prepare staff, and new support for families in how to use digital tools and getting help are critical for 2020-21.

“With our recommendation to start in distance learning, it means when it is time to be back in person, and we pick up our print materials in the classroom, it will be seamless,” Neves said. “Some of the investment is exciting because we are going to leverage digital resources in new ways when we are back full time in-person. We will have gained all of these skills.”

To date, more than 2,500 Tulsa students have expressed interest in the Tulsa Virtual Academy, a new option created because of the pandemic.

While the marketplace of virtual school options is greater than it’s ever been before in Oklahoma, Gist said many parents may not realize TPS has been in that business for more than 10 years with its Tulsa Learning Academy.

“Our commitment to students in the new Tulsa Virtual Academy is to have the highest quality and best experience compared to any other virtual option their family might consider,” Gist said. “Every resource the district has available to us are used in direct service to our students and their families.”

She added: “Unlike other entities, our only motivation is excellent service to our students and their families,” referring to for-profit models offered by other virtual school operators.

Parents of TPS students have until Aug. 10 to enroll their child in the district’s Virtual Academy, so that schools know how many teachers to reallocate to fill that need.

Students enrolled in traditional schools, even if they are in distance-learning mode, will have the ability to participate in activities and sports if they are held, but virtual academy students will not.

In most districts with a virtual school option, parents who enroll their children are committed to keep them there for either the first quarter, or in the case of TPS, the first semester, before they could change their minds and return their children to their home school.

Carver Middle School Principal Elton Sykes said 60 of his school’s 660 students have already enrolled in TPS’ virtual academy.

Staff at Carver and many other schools have been working around the clock to personally contact every child’s parent or guardian to find out if their child needs a computer or mobile internet hotspot and to answer any questions they might still have as they weigh their school options amid a deadly pandemic.

“I think some of them made the decision before our district announced the recommendation to start the year out in distance learning,” Sykes said. “What I heard from parents and what I saw in survey results — parents are very concerned about the safety of the students and the safety of the teachers who are serving them.”

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know

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