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COVID-19: 993 new cases breaks single-day record; young Tulsa County woman among 4 deaths

State health officials on Tuesday reported another single-day high for new COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma.

There were 993 new, confirmed cases of the potentially deadly disease, according to Oklahoma State Department of Health data. Each new case represents one unique individual, regardless of how many times they have been tested or received positive results, a Tulsa Health Department spokeswoman said.

Officials in Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office and at the Oklahoma State Department of Health did not return requests for comment Tuesday. Stitt has remained resolute in not mandating masks in public. However, mask mandates have been implemented or are being considered in cities around the state.

Mayor G.T. Bynum announced last week that an ordinance for face masks would be introduced to the City Council this week. Masks and cloth face coverings are a preventative measure encouraged by health experts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“The mask mandate is not the last option,” Bynum said during a COVID-19 briefing on July 8. “The last option is to start rolling back and ultimately going back to shelter-in-place, like we were a few months ago.

“The mask is the interim measure.”

Some municipalities across the state, including Norman and Stillwater, are mandating the wearing of masks in public. Councilors in Oklahoma City also are evaluating ordinances requiring face coverings in most public places.

Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Dr. Stephen Prescott said in a statement that masks serve as a way to protect fellow Oklahomans.

“If we wear masks in large enough numbers, it greatly reduces the spread of the virus,” said Prescott, a physician and medical researcher. “That’s not a political statement. That is a medically proven fact.”

State Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, who tested positive for coronavirus in March, urged Stitt on Tuesday to issue a statewide mask mandate amid the surge in cases.

“As a COVID-19 survivor, seeing the rapid rise in cases is alarming,” Lowe said in a statement. “Oklahomans must know that the pandemic is far from over and that we still must do what we can to protect ourselves and our community.

“I urge Governor Stitt to follow in the steps of fellow governors and put the health and safety of Oklahomans first and mandate that masks be worn in public spaces and private businesses.”

In Tulsa County on Tuesday, state health officials reported 181 new COVID-19 cases. The county’s seven-day rolling average was slightly tempered to 155, down 11 from the previous day. The state’s seven-day rolling average as of Tuesday was 645, another new high.

Two of the latest deaths were in Tulsa County. One was a woman in the 18-35 age group. The other was a man in the 50-64 age group. A McCurtain County man and an Oklahoma County woman, both older than 65, also died recently from the disease, according to state health officials. Further details about the recently reported deaths in Tulsa County were not immediately available.

There have been 428 COVID-19 deaths in Oklahoma since late March, and 21,738 confirmed cases since early March.

Across the state, 561 patients are hospitalized; the high for Oklahoma is 562 hospitalizations, which occurred on March 31, according to executive order reports. Of those currently hospitalized, 231 patients are in ICUs with 105 under investigation for the virus. Adult ICU capacity is at 21% statewide, according to a survey of hospital bed availability. The state’s overall positive percentage rate rose to 5.5%.

COVID-19 is most commonly spread through respiratory droplets, so public health officials encourage people to wear a mask or cloth face covering and to stay at least 6 feet from people who don’t live with them.

OMRF immunologist Dr. Eliza Chakravarty said masks can serve another valuable function.

“Wearing a mask helps remind you to follow social distancing rules and generally keeps you more aware,” Chakravarty said. “You’re more likely to stay away from others, wash your hands and avoid touching your face.”

Masks are vital when social distancing is difficult. A snug fit that covers the mouth and nose is the most effective, according to public health officials. In addition, people should avoid being in group or mass gatherings.

Frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water or use of hand sanitizer also can help prevent the spread of the disease, health experts say.

Those seeking to be tested for COVID-19 may find resources on the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s website, where testing sites are listed by county.

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Interactive graphic: See number of active COVID-19 cases by county

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

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

Watch Now: Archaeologists extend Oaklawn test site in search of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims

Archaeologists began widening their test site in Oaklawn Cemetery on Tuesday afternoon as they searched for clues to the location of unmarked burials from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre.

“We cannot always know what we are going to find,” State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said during a noon briefing. “We have not yet discovered victims.”

That had not changed three hours later, when the crew working in the west end of Oaklawn Cemetery shut down for the day.

By then the city track hoe crew working with the archaeologists had extended one corner of the original 10-foot-by-20-foot test site another 3 or 4 feet with a maximum depth of about 8 feet.

The plan Wednesday is to continue extending a leg southward as archeologists try to decipher strata of soil that seems to have been added sometime in the past 100 years.

The test site near a grove of crepe myrtles along the cemetery’s west fence was chosen because of a combination of subsurface scanning, burial records, news reports and oral histories.

Part of that oral history is that an Oaklawn sexton had the crepe myrtles planted decades ago to mark the spot where tradition held that people killed in the May 31-June 1, 1921, massacre had been buried.

Scientists using multiple subsurface scanning devices identified an anomaly in the ground at the top of a rise on what is essentially the cemetery’s westernmost row. That area is believed to have been used as a pauper’s field in the early 1920s.

Few graves are marked, and none are known to exist at the test site, which is notable because the cemetery has been essentially full for decades.

In two days of excavation, the archaeologists have indeed found an anomaly — signs that the first 8 feet or more of soil has been torn up and topped with “fill,” but the anomaly has not produced any signs of human remains.

Workers did discover a smattering of unrelated artifacts, including a shell casing and some animal bones.

Those findings momentarily halted work a little after 9 a.m., but Stackelbeck said the archaeological team is satisfied that the artifacts are unrelated to the race massacre.

The test site is one of dozens identified by research and oral tradition over the years, with locations ranging from other spots within Oaklawn to other area cemeteries to coal mines to far-flung fields.

Even as the crew worked Monday and Tuesday, a handful of people stopped by to voice opinions on where researchers should be looking, including under the Inner Dispersal Loop a few yards away and the bed of the Verdigris River.

Investigators have identified what they believe are a few of the most likely spots, including the current location and others just west of downtown and in far south Tulsa.

It is unclear how much longer the team will continue to work on the current test site. Originally, plans called for three to six days.

Gallery: Test excavations in Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves search

Gallery: Digging continues Tuesday for Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery

Tulsa's proposed mask ordinance faces hurdles as it heads to City Council on Wednesday

Mayor G.T. Bynum’s proposal to establish an ordinance requiring Tulsans 18 and older to wear face coverings in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19 goes to the City Council on Wednesday.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

Councilor Phil Lakin said he would be surprised if the proposal is voted on Wednesday.

“I do not think that we will take a vote,” Lakin said. “That is my gut. I personally have so many more questions to ask and so many more perspectives to get — medically, scientifically and from a data perspective.”

Lakin said councilors did not see a final version of the proposed ordinance until early Tuesday afternoon, prior to councilors’ meeting Tuesday in small groups via video conference with Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department.

“We’re starting our group discussions at 2:30 tomorrow (Wednesday) for something as significant as this,” Lakin said. “I’ll bet that we either continue the meeting or decide to have a special meeting.”

Councilors will also face two procedural hurdles should they decide they want to implement the ordinance immediately. Typically an ordinance must have two public readings before councilors can vote on it. To waive that City Charter requirement, at least six of nine councilors would have to vote to do so. Another super majority would be required to make the ordinance effective immediately.

Then there is the question of whether a majority of councilors will support it. Lakin and fellow Councilor Crista Patrick said the constituents they’ve heard from are split on the issue.

“Which is really difficult,” Patrick said. “I have a lot of questions to go into tomorrow.”

One of Patrick’s major concerns is the $100 fine anyone convicted of violating the ordinance would be required to pay. The proposal calls for first-time offenders to receive a verbal or written warning.

“Making people go to court and enter the court system for a ticket for not wearing a mask seems like a hardship that perpetuates the cycle of poverty … (and) debtors’ prison,” Patrick said.

Councilor Jeannie Cue said she has yet to make up her mind on requiring masks but that her constituents have made their opinions clear.

“I always support my residents, and it is 5-to-1 against the masks right now,” Cue said.

Wednesday’s City Council meetings will be conducted via video conference. Councilors are scheduled to discuss the mask ordinance at their 2:30 p.m. committee meeting before considering possible action at their 5 p.m. regular meeting.

The public will not be allowed to comment on the proposals but can view the meetings at or on the Tulsa City Council’s Facebook page.

State health officials on Tuesday reported another single-day high for new COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma with 993. In Tulsa County, state health officials reported 181 new COVID-19 cases.

The county’s seven-day rolling average decreased slightly to 155, down 11 from the previous day. The state’s seven-day rolling average as of Tuesday was 645, another new high.

Bynum’s proposed ordinance would require Tulsans 18 years of age and older to wear face coverings over their mouths and noses inside businesses, other indoor spaces open to the public and in outdoor public spaces where proper social distancing is not possible.

The requirement for wearing a mask in outdoor public spaces pertains to those situations where a person is not able to maintain 6 feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household.

First-time violators of the ordinance would receive a verbal or written notice. A person cited for violating the ordinance a second time would be issued a ticket for a misdemeanor and, if convicted, would be subject to a fine of no more than $100, excluding court costs.

The proposed ordinance would expire when Bynum’s latest emergency order expires or when Gov. Kevin Stitt’s emergency declaration expires, whichever comes first.

The proposal includes 11 exceptions, including for a “person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher, or actively administering an election, but wearing a face covering is strongly encouraged.”

Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman said Tuesday that she understands the city’s desire to implement a mask requirement but that procedures and protocols for conducting elections in Tulsa County are determined by state law, the state Election Board and the county Election Board.

“Irrespective of a city ordinance, the policy of the Tulsa County Election Board will remain that all Tulsa County poll workers are required to wear the proper PPE on Election Day,” Freeman said. “And while we cannot require voters to wear masks, we highly encourage them to out of consideration for our election workers and others.”

Here is a complete list of the proposed exceptions to the mask ordinance:

Any person younger than 18 years of age; however, wearing a mask covering is strongly encouraged.

Any person with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.

Any person in the process of exercising outdoors or engaging in physical activity outdoors and who is maintaining a safe distance from other people not in the same household.

Any person consuming food or drink or who is seated at a restaurant to eat or drink.

Any person who is actively providing or obtaining access to religious worship, though wearing a mask is strongly encouraged.

Any person in a swimming pool, lake or similar body of water.

Any person driving alone or with passengers who are part of the same household as the driver.

Any person obtaining a service that requires temporary removal of the face covering for security surveillance, screening or a need for specific access to the face, such as while visiting a bank or while obtaining a personal care or dental service involving the face, but only to the extent necessary for the temporary removal.

Any person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher or actively administering an election, but wearing a face covering is strongly encouraged.

Any person giving a speech for a broadcast or to an audience.

Any person performing work in which face coverings present or exacerbate a hazard.

Related video: Mayor G.T. Bynum gives a mask and COVID-19 update

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

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

Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board wants to weigh in on court case involving Epic

One of Epic Charter Schools’ own sponsors now wants to file a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of the state’s legal effort to compel Epic’s for-profit operator to comply with an investigative audit.

The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board on Tuesday authorized its attorneys to seek permission to file the legal brief in support of the position of the state auditor and inspector, who has gone to district court over Epic’s lack of compliance with her public records requests and administrative subpoenas.

At issue is Epic’s shielding its use of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for something it calls the Learning Fund.

The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which sponsors a public online school called Epic One-on-One, voted 4-0, with member Mathew Hamrick absent.

“It’s vital that there is transparency and all charter schools have clear expectations. Obviously, it would appear that there is some difference in those expectations in this case,” said John Harrington, president of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. “We are obviously looking at a significant amount of public funds paid to third-party entities.”

Harrington said it was the board’s first action of its kind in a legal matter but something the board thinks is important because it believed the matter was already a settled one.

“This is kind of an interesting exercise in stating what you think is the obvious,” he said. “That is exactly the type of information we expect to see — the expenditure of public funds and record-keeping associated with that — and we believe each of our charter schools has agreed to provide the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and the state auditor this type of documentation. It is clearly delineated in our agreement with the charters.”

This month marks a full year since Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic and all of its related entities by State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd.

Byrd has yet to issue any report of findings in the matter, which landed in district court in March over Epic’s lack of compliance with her public records requests and administrative subpoenas.

The Oklahoma County judge handling the legal fight has scheduled the next hearing in the matter for Aug. 5.

In that court battle, Epic’s founders are claiming the tens of millions of dollars in question by Byrd are “earned” by the school management company they own to provide goods and services.

But the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office is disputing those claims in Oklahoma County District Court in an effort to get the state auditor access to Epic’s Learning Fund spending records.

In a new brief filed in court last week, the Attorney General’s Office wrote that the company’s own operational agreement says the funds are transferred to Epic Youth Services to “purchase and manage school assets and services on behalf of the school” — not as another means of potential income for Epic Youth Services, which already receives a 10% cut of every dollar of school revenue.

Epic Youth Services also receives Learning Fund dollars for Epic’s second school model — called Epic Blended Learning Centers, which offer a blend of online and in-person instruction to students in Tulsa County and Oklahoma County.

State law enforcement maintains an ongoing investigation into allegations of embezzlement, racketeering and forgery by top executives at Epic and willful neglect by members of its independent governing board.

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Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation