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OKC official stresses COVID-19 testing and tracing

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Testing and contact tracing will be essential in managing COVID-19 as the pandemic unfolds, Oklahoma City's emergency management director said Tuesday.

Frank Barnes referenced a study by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota laying out possibilities for how the pandemic runs its course, including a series of "peaks and valleys" over a couple of years.

"If we are going to live with the disease, we have to address the spikes that are going to occur," Barnes told the city council.

He said shortages of materials and laboratory resources have so far challenged the ability to do the testing necessary to identify infectious individuals.

"There is a need to increase the testing capacity," he said, while noting testing everyone is neither efficient nor effective. If living with the disease is acceptable, he said, managing its trajectory so as not to overwhelm the hospital system is key.

Barnes was asked for his views as the council debated a resolution expressing support for mass COVID-19 testing and for provision of personal protective equipment, and advocating authorization to use federal funding to make up for pandemic-related municipal revenue shortfalls.

The council split 4-3 on the resolution, with opponents emphasizing the desire to loosen emergency orders restricting business activity while the sponsor, Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper, emphasized the need for people to feel safe in returning to work and everyday activities.

Cooper contended public health and economic vitality go "hand-in-glove."

Cooper, Ward 4 Councilman Todd Stone, Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon and Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice supported the resolution. It was opposed by Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell and Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher.

Ward 1 Councilman James Greiner, who last month called for dropping restrictions intended to slow the spread of the disease, and Mayor David Holt were absent.

Stonecipher cited a local survey that he said found 69% of those asked supported loosening restrictions on business.

That was backed up, he said, by his own conversations with individuals who "want others to know they are concerned about the harm to the economy. My constituents are looking at this differently."

The council met by teleconference for the fourth time since pandemic precautions were instituted in mid-March. The council's response has included $5.9 million in relief funds for small businesses hurt by the economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic.

Applicants sought more than $20 million from the first $5.5 million in cash payments and loans. Applications for another $400,000 reserved for businesses with five employees or fewer and sole proprietorships are being taken through May 25.

Recent sales tax results were down 16%, showing the hit retail took in the first weeks after the coronavirus began spreading in the Oklahoma City metro area.

The council learned Tuesday that the Homeland grocery chain has abandoned plans to construct a new corporate headquarters in northeast Oklahoma City.

The council also was briefed on plans to extend $3 million in taxpayer-funded job-creation incentives to persuade Costco to open an office to support its growing e-commerce business. The center is expected to have about 1,044 employees within three years of opening.

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William Crum

OU and Norman High School graduate, formerly worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Norman Transcript. Married, two children, lives in Norman. Read more ›

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