COVID-19 has unmasked a political division in Oklahoma where many would argue it shouldn’t exist.
COVID-19 cases in the parts of the state without mask mandates grew by 88%, while the population covered by mask ordinances rose by only 21% in the same nearly three-month period, according to the Oct. 30 version of the state’s weekly epidemiology report.
Dr. Jennifer Clark, a physician and former hospital administrator, drew attention to that report Wednesday during her weekly COVID-19 data presentation for the OSU Center for Health Sciences’ Project ECHO.
“Not sure you can be more blatant about the fact of how powerful masks are,” Clark said.
Medical professionals and public health experts called for a statewide mask mandate for months to preserve lives and hospital capacity. And the science — including an analysis recently published by the state epidemiologist — supports masks for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Healthier Oklahoma Coalition — comprising the Oklahoma State Medical Association, the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the Oklahoma Nurses Association and other groups — is among those groups that have called for a statewide mask mandate. The White House Coronavirus Task Force also has urged Gov. Kevin Stitt to implement a statewide mask order.
Stitt has resisted imposing some version of a masking requirement, whether statewide or based on rates in individual counties. Stitt as recently as Oct. 20 said he is leaving the mask issue up to municipalities because “every county’s different,” even as the state’s own alert system at the time had 70 of 77 counties in its orange category, which signifies the highest rates of spread.
Spokespeople for Stitt didn’t respond to questions for this story.
Interim state epidemiologist Dr. Jared Taylor’s analysis of the impact of mask mandates encompassed Aug. 1 to Oct. 21 and used the seven-day average of cases by date of onset, with a seven-day lag.
Taylor wrote in response to a question that the Oklahoma State Department of Health has done other assessments, too, that have shown that virus transmission is decreased in communities with mask mandates.
He said that while the “ideal outcome” would be for mask mandates to drive cases to zero, myriad factors influence transmission.
“Overall — we know that masks are the most effective way to prevent transmission and continue to encourage Oklahomans to wear a mask when in public,” Taylor wrote.
The State Health Department didn’t answer questions about whether Taylor or Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye have recommended to Stitt that he implement a mask order or if there are any benchmarks to be reached before the governor might consider such an action.
“Mandating masks is up to the local leaders in our state,” according to the Health Department’s statement. “And we continue to encourage all Oklahomans to wear a mask when in public and social distancing is not possible.”
‘Not a safe level’
Tulsa is the only city in its area with a mask ordinance.
Mayor G.T. Bynum on Tuesday urged other municipalities to talk with public health experts and follow suit because the “vast majority” of COVID hospital patients in Tulsa are not Tulsa residents.
Bynum and a handful of city councilors were to meet Friday about COVID-19 with Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. The main topic seemed destined to be COVID hospitalizations, which Bynum has called “not a safe level for us as a city” and Dart has described as “starting to be very alarming.”
THD also is scheduled to meet Nov. 5 with area mayors, city managers and hospital leaders. Bynum previously has said he was trying to convene such a meeting to present the science and data supporting mask orders.
Michelle Brooks, a spokeswoman for Bynum, said the mayor received his information about the “vast majority” of COVID patients coming from outside of Tulsa in speaking with hospital leaders.
Bynum on Tuesday said the previous week’s COVID-19 hospitalizations in Tulsa were 20% above the record Tulsa set during the summer. Saint Francis Health System took out a large ad in the Tulsa World a week ago to highlight its recent peak and to ask for the public’s help because “we’re headed in the wrong direction.”
Statewide COVID hospitalizations set records 11 of 15 weeknights the state published the data from Oct. 5-23. Although hospitalizations declined each day this past week to 852 reported Friday, Friday saw a record 322 COVID patients in intensive care units.
The previous ICU record was 319 patients reported Oct. 19.
The state’s overall hospitalization record of 956 COVID patients was reported Oct. 22. Oklahoma hasn’t had fewer than 800 COVID hospitalizations since Oct. 16.
Mask policies getting stronger
In his weekly briefing Thursday, Dr. David Kendrick expressed optimism that there are “reasonably strong masking policies” among population centers in Oklahoma.
Kendrick is CEO of MyHealth Access Network, a nonprofit health information exchange based in Tulsa that is tracking pandemic data to provide education.
In fact, Kendrick said, there is definitive evidence that masks work, and the trend in Oklahoma has been to strengthen existing mask mandates as more data are analyzed.
“I’m hopeful we can get a few more to do that,” he said, referring to mask ordinances passed by city councils that haven’t yet done so.
Kendrick addressed a question about how to get Tulsa’s suburbs to implement mask mandates. He said that is a political question but said perhaps the use of data is the best avenue to persuade other municipalities.
He pointed to Bynum’s comments that the Tulsa City Council voted to lower the age at which Tulsa’s mask ordinance applies to 10 years old directly because of scientific research.
“Maybe that’s the way to deal with these suburbs,” Kendrick said. “I have had calls from a couple of suburban mayors and requests for data about it. But there’s data and evidence, and then there’s politics.
“I don’t claim to be an expert in data, but I certainly know more about the data and the evidence than I do about the politics on this one. I think a lot of us are scratching our heads about it.”
Kendrick said there wasn’t a huge amount of support for mask requirements when the Tulsa City Council and others were considering the issue because there wasn’t much concrete evidence. Bynum has publicly said he believes the council’s original mask ordinance vote would have failed 3-6 had it not been for a presentation on the science by local experts that turned it into a 7-2 success.
“We’ve shown definitive evidence of the differences between communities that have masking and (those that) don’t. That seems to have made all the difference in the votes,” Kendrick said. “We were able to have masking policies rolled out in most of our major cities in Oklahoma.”
Video: Tulsa mayor to talk with experts about the spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues