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'Vast majority' of Tulsa's record COVID-19 hospitalizations are from outside city, officials say

'Vast majority' of Tulsa's record COVID-19 hospitalizations are from outside city, officials say

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Tulsa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations a week ago were 20% above its record over the summer, with the “vast majority” of patients coming from outside the city limits, Mayor G.T. Bynum said Tuesday during a news conference.

Unfortunately, Bynum pointed out, he and the City Council are powerless to enact any sort of mitigation strategies beyond Tulsa. Nonetheless, the mayor, city councilors and Bruce Dart of the Tulsa Health Department plan to meet Friday to discuss the state of affairs and whether there is more that Tulsa itself can do.

Bynum urged elected leaders in neighboring communities to talk with hospital executives and public health experts to learn what is happening and how to best address the situation. He said his office is reaching out to surrounding governments and hospitals to convene a meeting to initiate that discussion.

Tulsa has a mask mandate while no other nearby municipalities do, but Bynum said there are other mitigation actions communities can take even though he does support mask ordinances elsewhere, too.

“This has truly become the situation that we talked about early on where we needed to work together as a region to protect the integrity of our regional health care system,” Bynum said. “That’s where we are now. That’s not a theoretical discussion anymore; that’s happening today in this city.”

Health care workers ‘truly spent’

Jake Henry Jr., president and CEO of Saint Francis Health System, said he fears that “we are entering a very, very dark winter” as trends head in the wrong direction.

Henry noted that a week ago his hospital network hit a peak of 129 COVID-19 patients, with its surge capacity able to handle around 150 COVID patients.

For perspective, Saint Francis’ July peak hit 97, with the spring peak at 55.

Henry pleaded for people to do the three W's: wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance. Hospital beds aren’t the concern, he said, it’s finding the personnel to staff them and long-term fatigue in hospital workers.

Many nurses, doctors and support personnel are exhausted after wearing personal protection equipment for a bustling 12-hour shift over and over again, he said.

“When they get in their car and drive home, they are truly spent,” Henry said. “When they enter unmasked apathy in public places — stores, restaurants and public gatherings — they feel defeated.”

Hospitalizations ‘very alarming’

Dart, Tulsa’s top public health official as THD’s executive director, used three notable phrases as he described the state of COVID-19 here: Very alarming. Getting overwhelmed. Russian roulette.

The first two are references to record hospitalizations locally and statewide, while the third is what happens to the health care system when people don’t take COVID’s threat seriously.

Dart said the virus clearly isn’t limited to one part of town when you look at Tulsa Health Department’s heat map and color-coded ZIP code map, with hospitalizations “starting to be very alarming.”

On Tuesday, Oklahoma carded a single-day record in reported COVID-19 deaths with 22, topping the previous high of 21 set April 21. The seven-day moving average of COVID deaths in the state also hit a new high at 11.7.

Going into this week, Oklahoma had set a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations 12 of the past 15 weekdays that data was released by the state.

The latest record was 956 COVID-19 hospitalizations reported statewide Thursday. For COVID-19 patients in ICUs, that record is 319 reported Oct. 19.

For comparison, the state’s high during the summer peak was 663 COVID-19 hospitalizations reported July 28. The record in the first wave was 560 reported on March 30.

Contact tracing and schools

Dart conveyed concern about small, private gatherings because people might have a false sense of security at homes or offices, thereby relaxing social distancing measures in those settings. He harbors particular concern because the holiday and flu seasons are approaching as people tend to gather inside.

“We don’t have data that demonstrates a need for mandated restrictions on gatherings because, frankly, people aren’t providing us with this information,” Dart said, noting how critical it is for infected people to be forthcoming with close contact information so disease investigators can help protect others.

Bynum later chimed in that contact tracing information actually is what has helped keep bars and restaurants open because the THD in the past was able to demonstrate neither were significant causes of local disease spread.

He also emphasized that contact tracing information helps save lives.

“We need the help of Tulsans who have contracted this virus to cooperate and provide them that information so that they can give policymakers the best guidance we need to keep people safe,” Bynum said.

Dart said schools so far “are doing a fairly good job.” He said he hasn’t seen near the number of faculty of staff contracting the virus, with fewer cases found in students the younger the demographics are.

Cases are primarily associated with extracurricular activities and not classrooms themselves, he said, so “the schools seem to be doing a really nice job.”

Dart said conversations of whether there is enough hospital capacity should be reframed around how can spread be prevented so hospitals aren’t a primary concern.

He offered several common-sense suggestions for safety: don’t attend large gatherings that fail to adhere to social distancing guidelines; only gather in groups of 10 or fewer; if sick, stay home; seek COVID-19 testing at no cost from THD; get your flu shot to help avoid the twin threat of influenza and COVID.

“I hear from so many health care providers and health care workers who keep asking, ‘Why our messages aren’t being listened to and why people aren’t following recommendations to stay safe? Our health care system is getting overwhelmed,’” Dart said. “They keep wanting to know why the public is playing Russian roulette with their health and with the health of the health care system.”

Video: CEO of Saint Francis talks about health care workers facing the pandemic

Jake Henry Jr. also said that Oklahoma has always had a shortage of doctors and nurses, especially in rural areas, even before the pandemic.

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


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Staff Writer

I am a general assignment reporter who predominately writes about public health, public safety and justice reform. I'm in journalism to help make this community, state, country and, ultimately, world a better place.

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