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Oklahoma's COVID-19 daily case average doubles in three weeks, but Gov. Stitt calls it a 'plateau' in downplaying surge

Oklahoma’s COVID-19 daily case average has doubled in three weeks, but Gov. Kevin Stitt repeatedly said it had “plateaued” Thursday as he downplayed concerns about the state’s surge.

“We’ve been on this plateau now for the last three weeks of number of cases,” Stitt told reporters and a Facebook live audience.

However, state data contradict the governor, showing a clear upward trajectory. The seven-day rolling average of daily cases climbed 96% in three weeks, reaching a record average of 1,110 cases on Thursday that is up from 565 reported July 9.

The seven-day rolling average — the average of the number of new cases reported each day in a seven-day span — is a metric chosen by the state early in the pandemic. The moving average smooths out daily fluctuations in the number of new positive tests and inconsistencies in testing turnaround times.

A Tulsa World reporter asked Stitt’s office for an explanation of his plateau comments and how he can reconcile them with a doubling of the daily case average in the time frame he used multiple times.

Baylee Lakey, communications director for Stitt, didn’t address the surge in daily positive cases in her email response. Instead, she cited two data metrics that Stitt didn’t reference in his remarks.

“As noted in the (Oklahoma State Department of Health’s) weekly Epidemiologist report, the percentage of positives cases this week is 8.9%, the lowest since July 3,” Lakey wrote. “Furthermore, when looking at the data based on onset of symptoms and the date COVID-19 tests were administered, Oklahoma has remained largely steady on the active presence of COVID-19 since July 18.”

However, state data show that active cases in Oklahoma have risen 70% during Stitt’s timeline of the past three weeks.

The State Health Department reported 6,793 active cases statewide Thursday, up from 3,986 active cases reported July 9. Using Lakey’s date of July 18 still yields a 38% increase in active cases as of Thursday.

The Health Department didn’t respond to similar questions about Stitt’s comments.

Stitt’s handling of the pandemic is drawing scrutiny at the federal level.

The chairman of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee tasked with investigating issues related to the coronavirus pandemic noted that a July 26 report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force “provides a dire assessment of the situation in Oklahoma … .”

The chairman’s July 29 letter states that the subcommittee’s review found that Oklahoma doesn’t appear to be following at least five different recommendations from the Task Force and is only partially complying with another.

Depending on whether a county is considered to be a hotspot or is nearing becoming one, the recommendations include caps on social gatherings, closing bars, reducing indoor dining capacity to 25%; limiting gyms to 25% of their occupancy capacity; ensuring that retailers and personal services require masks and safe social distancing; and implementing mask mandates.

“The Task Force report privately recommended that Oklahoma implement these health measures to help reverse the dangerous spike in cases across the state and to prevent unnecessary deaths,” wrote the subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. “Failure to comply is allowing the virus to spread, prolonging and exacerbating the public health crisis facing the state.”

When a reporter asked the governor about the document Thursday, he called the letter a “political statement.”

Stitt said he’s on calls with the president, vice president and 49 other governors every week, looking at the recommendations and making decisions based on the facts in Oklahoma.

“What you’re talking about is, I think, a subcommittee inside Congress that really is just trying to make a political statement either against the president or our state,” Stitt said. “I don’t know exactly where it’s coming from.”

Stitt again highlighted the state’s color-coded COVID-19 alert system, which he rolled out July 9 in response to Coronavirus Task Force recommendations to “give counties some level of assurance.”

However, public health officials in Oklahoma have called the alert map unhelpful.

The system uses county-specific rates of new coronavirus cases to determine whether a county is “new normal,” low risk, moderate or high risk.

But the only way a county can become high risk is if the number of hospital beds or ventilators drops below 5% or the amount of personal protective equipment statewide drops below five days’ worth, regardless of whether an individual county’s hospital system is overwhelmed.

In a separate news conference Thursday, Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart broached the topic of the Coronavirus Task Force report and the state’s color-coded alert system by saying, “There’s issues, I think, with both criteria, to be perfectly honest.”

Dart said Tulsa County has local data and that local data should be the basis for decisions. He said he had read some excerpts from the White House document about closing bars early and reducing restaurant capacity to 25% capacity.

“I don’t know of any business that can function and make a profit at 25% capacity. And, frankly, here in Tulsa County that’s not our main risk,” Dart said. “For here we talk about gatherings. Our main concern right now — the data’s telling us — is things like weddings, camps, sport-related gatherings, long-term care facilities, and we’re starting to see a few cases out of child care.”

Dart said the state’s alert system “isn’t going to be real helpful to us” unless it uses a regional concept for hospitalizations rather than statewide metrics.

“If our hospitals are exceeding capacity here and there’s hospital beds elsewhere, we still won’t meet their high-risk, or red, category,” Dart said.

Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma, made similar comments July 17.

Bratzler said the color-coded map “is not helpful at this point.” He noted how the state was mostly one color even though there are ongoing and specific hot spots in the state.

He also called it “unrealistic” for the state to suggest that it will transfer patients from a Tulsa hospital, for example, to a small rural hospital simply because it has an available bed.

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OSU opens nation's first tribally affiliated medical school

TAHLEQUAH — A historic “white coat” ceremony on Friday for 54 Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine students officially launched Cherokee Nation’s medical school.

Former Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. were acknowledged for setting up the partnership between Cherokee Nation and OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine to establish the first tribally affiliated medical school in the country.

“History is being made today,” Hoskin said during an online speech to the students. “As each of you receives your white coat and embark on a four-year journey that will forever shape the delivery of health care for our Cherokee people in rural Oklahoma.”

Cherokee Nation people are full of grit and determination, and those same principles have guided the nation into what it is today, Hoskin said.

“That dream is now a reality,” he said. “Our people will need you and rural Oklahoma will need you.”

The inaugural class represents a beacon of hope for rural and tribal communities throughout Oklahoma that suffer from physician shortages, said Dr. Kayse Shrum, OSU Center for Health Sciences president and OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine dean.

“A child growing up in northeast Oklahoma no longer has to leave this region to pursue their dream to become a doctor,” Shrum said.

“Twenty percent of you are American Indian, 41 percent of you have a rural background and 100 percent of you will help us change the heatlh trajectory of Oklahoma for the better,” Shrum said.

Each medical student received a white coat during the 40-minute ceremony.

“You come with impeccable academic credentials and a desire to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Dr. William J. Pettit, dean of the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation.

Third-year medical student Katie Marney also addressed the students with three points of advice.

“Support one another; give yourself some grace; enjoy this moment and enjoy this experience.”

OSU Medicine and the Cherokee Nation announced the medical school in October 2018. The 84,000-square-foot building is expected to be finished in December.

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Feds file charges against two men whose state convictions were overturned on jurisdictional grounds

Two men who won appeals that led to the Supreme Court declaring earlier this month that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation was never disestablished, now face charges in federal court.

A U.S. District Court magistrate this week approved the filing of criminal complaints against Patrick Dwayne Murphy, 51, and Jimcy McGirt, 71.

Murphy was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in state court in connection with the 1999 McIntosh County stabbing and beating death of George Jacobs Sr., 49.

McGirt is serving a life-without-parole prison term and two 500-year sentences after being convicted of the sexual abuse of a minor in 1997 in Wagoner County.

Both Murphy and McGirt earlier this month won court challenges at the Supreme Court on the grounds that the state didn’t have jurisdiction to try them because they were American Indians and the crimes occurred within the historic boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The Supreme Court in a landmark 5-4 decision issued July 9 sided with McGirt’s jurisdictional argument that also applied to Murphy’s appeal.

The Supreme Court in its McGirt ruling overturned a state Court of Criminal Appeals ruling which denied his jurisdictional claims that Congress had never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The Supreme Court ruling meant any crime occurring within the 11-county footprint of the tribe’s historic reservation boundaries would have to be tried in either federal or tribal court, depending on the severity of the crime.

Since the ruling, federal officials have begun filing cases in U.S. District Court when at least one of the parties involved is American Indian and it was a major crime that occurred within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, which includes much of the city of Tulsa.

But McGirt and Murphy, the latter of whom is being held on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, may be the first instances in which a state conviction has been refiled in federal court based on the McGirt decision.

An affidavit filed in Muskogee federal court by an FBI agent alleges Murphy, 51, told others he beat and sexually dismembered Jacobs on Aug. 28, 1999, leaving his bleeding body in a ditch on the side of a road.

Murphy was riding in a car with two other individuals, Kevin King and Billy Jack Long, just prior to the trio encountering Jacobs in another vehicle on a McIntosh County road, according to the affidavit.

After forcing the vehicle Jacobs was riding in to stop, Murphy and King both beat Jacobs, according to the affidavit.

Jacobs’ body was found in the roadside ditch, near the town of Vernon in McIntosh County.

Murphy later told his girlfriend that he had killed Jacobs, according to the affidavit.

Murphy’s girlfriend at the time was the ex-wife of Jacobs, according to Tulsa World archives.

Both Murphy and Jacobs were enrolled members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The affidavit states that both Long and King are now deceased.

In the McGirt case, a criminal complaint filed in Muskogee federal court Friday names the former Wagoner County man in connection with the aggravated sexual abuse of a minor in Indian Country.

An affidavit filed in support of the request claims McGirt sexually abused a 4-year-old female at a residence in which he lived.

The affidavit states that McGirt is a member of the Seminole Nation while McGirt’s residence at the time is within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

It was unclear when the pair would make their first court appearances.

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Watch now: Colleagues' remarks were 'racially motivated' and a product of 'white rage,' Tulsa school board member says

The Tulsa school board’s only Black member accused colleagues of disparaging her through what she calls a series of “racially motivated” remarks at a recent board meeting.

Jennettie Marshall, who represents a large portion of schools in north Tulsa, spoke for 10 minutes during the July 20 meeting about board members she says have tried to silence her since she was elected three years ago.

Marshall’s comments were specifically in reference to a board meeting two weeks earlier, when four board members spoke out against a nomination for her to serve as vice president.

“July 6 was about one thing and one thing only: a pressure cooker called white rage,” Marshall said during the July 20 meeting. “… White rage is not about a visible bias. It’s subtle and corrosive and is found even in a place like school boards and cloaks its way through legalities.

“The presence of Black people is not the trigger for white rage. It’s the presence of Black people with ambition, the presence of Black people with drive, the presence of Black people with aspirations, the presence of Black people who achieve. …”

Shawna Keller and Suzanne Schreiber — who served as the board’s president and vice president, respectively, until the July 6 meeting — said Marshall failed to communicate with them about concerns they’ve raised to her in the past.

During that meeting, Schreiber said she had reached out to Marshall several times to work out their issues but never received a response. She further said Marshall has criticized the board repeatedly for “lacking in integrity, being untrustworthy, not being truthful and not being transparent.”

“I think those things make me have concerns about whether or not she can work with all of us and trust everyone on the board and move forward in a positive way,” Schreiber said at the time.

Board member Jania Wester then said that while she respects Marshall and thinks she brings a lot of valuable questions to the table, she could not support the nomination based on conversations with her constituents.

John Croisant, who was attending his first meeting after being elected to the board, also alluded to concerns he’s heard from constituents about the group’s ability to work together. He said having a board split on Marshall’s nomination worried him.

Schreiber, Keller, Wester and Croisant ultimately voted against Marshall’s nomination for vice president, which went to Wester shortly thereafter.

During the July 20 board meeting, Marshall denied that she was uncommunicative with Schreiber and Keller, saying instead that the two board members have not returned numerous calls and messages from her over the past year.

“It’s interesting that I can search my phone and go back over a year ago and see in my log many calls that weren’t answered, but I got automated responses saying not available, but they were never returned,” Marshall said. “But I’ve been held to a different standard because I didn’t return calls or I didn’t call. I’m labeled dissident or obstinate.”

On Tuesday, Schreiber again reiterated in a statement to the Tulsa World her belief that Marshall has expressed “extreme and unfounded allegations against the board as a whole and against individuals.”

Marshall long has been a vocal critic of the district’s overall leadership and has accused Schreiber of having a conflict of interest during prior votes because of her employment with the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

“When I have reached out to Ms. Marshall to address these matters, she has not responded to me,” Schreiber said. “These two things combined concern me, and that is precisely why I said what I said in the discussion of the failed nomination for vice president.

“I plan to continue to reach out to Ms. Marshall when and if she expresses concerns, and I look forward to continuing to serve with her and my fellow board members as we continue to devote ourselves to serving kids, families and Tulsa.”

During the July 20 meeting, Marshall also took issue with Wester’s comments about constituents saying Marshall is not right for leadership. Marshall alleged that Wester hasn’t properly represented the Black constituents in her district because most of her focus is on the Latino community. She added that she has had to take on the duty of representing the Black constituents in Wester’s district herself.

Wester told the Tulsa World in a statement that families in Tulsa Public Schools can enroll in schools outside of their neighborhoods, meaning board members serve families from all over the city.

But she said most who reach out to her identify as Hispanic and Latino because they know she is bilingual and shares similar cultural experiences.

“Having a board member that speaks their language opens up the door for them to reach out when they need to,” Wester said.

“Of course, I ran for the board to serve all Tulsans and everyone in District 2 regardless of their race,” Wester continued. “I am enthusiastic and eager to continue to speak to, represent and serve any person with questions, concerns, ideas and thoughts regarding our mutual goal of improving educational outcomes for our students.”

Marshall also questioned why Croisant praised her efforts on the board and lauded her reputation in the community during a three-hour phone call but then offered sharp criticism in another call shortly before the July 6 meeting. She claims that Croisant told her that “everyone thought I was the worst thing” and “the worst person with no integrity.”

Croisant told the Tulsa World in a statement that he stands by Marshall’s right to speak freely and represent her constituents and TPS students in the “way she deems best.”

“Watching the TPS school board over the last few years, I have seen a division on the board, and we as board members must work to eliminate these issues,” he said. “I apologize for any issues this has caused Ms. Marshall, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the board to help TPS through this difficult time we are going through.”

Finally, Marshall condemned a comment made during the July 6 meeting in which Keller said Wester would be a valuable leader on the board because she represents an “unrepresented faction of our population.”

“That was racist,” Marshall said of Keller’s calling a minority group a faction. “That was insulting to a minority population within the district, and it insulted all minorities. It was culturally insensitive. I am an African American. … But I am not a faction.”

Keller did not respond directly to Marshall’s comments in a statement to the Tulsa World but did say she believes that each of her colleagues is “committed to ensuring that every single child in Tulsa has the supports that they need to be successful.”

Marshall later told the Tulsa World that she is not asking for an apology from her fellow board members, adding that “you can’t apologize for being a racist.” Instead, she said they need to take an “inward look at themselves and the biases they carry.”

She said she has sat through numerous conversations during board meetings and other meetings about how to address bias and equity in the school district.

“Until we fix it at the board level, we as a district will never truly address implicit bias, racism and equity on the level that it needs to be addressed in Tulsa Public Schools,” Marshall said.

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

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