The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Tuesday said it is working to shift from statewide to regional hospital data to inform its weekly COVID-19 alert system.
Public health experts have called Gov. Kevin Stitt’s alert system unhelpful because it lacks granular hospital data. Coronavirus hospitalizations by county or region would be a more useful tool to evaluate county risks — as the alert system purports to do — rather than relying on statewide numbers that can’t pinpoint local trends.
Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma, said the system “is not helpful at this point,” noting on July 17 how the state map was mostly one color despite specific ongoing hot spots in Oklahoma.
Currently, the alert system is updated each Friday and relies on county-level infection rates per capita to determine if each county’s risk is new normal (green), low (yellow) or moderate (orange).
However, the only way a county can reach the high-risk (red) category is if:
• The entire state’s hospital capacity or ventilator availability drops below 5%.
• Hospital personal protective equipment depletes to less than five days' worth across the whole state.
So a local hospital system could become overwhelmed, but if there are beds or PPE elsewhere, the risk level remains moderate instead of high in that county or counties.
Bruce Dart, Tulsa Health Department executive director, on July 30 said the COVID-19 alert system “isn’t going to be real helpful to us” unless it uses a regional concept for hospitalizations rather than statewide metrics.
Stitt and his interim health commissioner have publicly said they would release localized data on COVID-19 hospitalizations, but a month later that information remains private.
Rob Crissinger, an OSDH spokesman, on Tuesday said the agency should be releasing "something soon" but that he doesn't have specific details on what form the data might take or how often the data would be released.
"We’re still making the shift from statewide hospital data triggers to the regional approach on the COVID-19 Alert System that aligns with the updated hospital surge plan," Crissinger wrote.
A potential value of publicly releasing regional COVID-19 hospital data to analyze local trends was illustrated July 23.
Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, posted on social media that a local COVID-19 patient was in an emergency room at 8:30 a.m. July 22 in need of a bed but unable to be placed in one until the "one and only bed in the entire Tulsa metro area became available" after 5:30 p.m.
A state spokeswoman said the state was unable to confirm details of Monks' post with Tulsa hospitals.
Nine days after a Tulsa World open records request for more granular hospital data, Stitt was asked whether regional hospital data would be used to better inform the state's risk map.
“If it’s not out there, we certainly have that and we track it and I can make that available,” Stitt said, adding that his nightly COVID-19 briefings include regional hospital capacity.
Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye described the risk map at its July 9 launch as similar to a weather warning system at a county level.
The state failed to list and explain the highest-risk category on its website for the public release, meaning Oklahomans might not have realized there was a red category nor understood that local metrics alone wouldn't move their county to a red alert on the state system.
“We’re not going to start and stop our economy and start and stop our economy unless we see some catastrophic issues with our health-care (system) going up to the red level,” the governor said at the time. “I’m going to continue to be transparent with Oklahomans, continue to give them the data and then give them the freedom to make those decisions to protect themselves and their families.”
Video: White House COVID-19 reports show Oklahoma in the red zone since mid-July.
COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues.