Oklahoma health officials balk at mandating masks
As a record surge of new COVID-19 infections continues to spread across Oklahoma, the state’s leading health official said he believes a mask mandate is not the answer.
Oklahoma State Department of Health officials addressed the recent spike in new coronavirus cases on Monday, noting a small backlog of cases and reporting issues some county health departments are having.
State Health Commissioner Lance Frye said health officials and Gov. Kevin Stitt are looking at many options to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and “nothing is off the table” in regard to actions that could be taken to slow transmission.
But when asked if he had recommended a mask mandate to Stitt as an option, Frye said he didn’t believe a mandate would be a viable option.
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“We have had discussions and we had some information presented to us that looked at several different mitigation factors, and mask mandates were the one that made the least difference,” Frye said. “I’m not saying masks don’t work. I’m just saying that it was the mandate, it wasn’t the wearing. So I’m saying mask compliance is what we need and that’s what works in the state.”
On Monday the state health department reported 2,197 new cases of COVID-19, pushing the total number of infections to 138,455 since the beginning of the pandemic.
There are now 20,129 active cases in Oklahoma, an all-time high.
A nonprofit group called Prevent Epidemics recently published a report that showed coronavirus cases declined in Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas after mask mandates were put in place. The CDC found that in Arizona, after a mask mandate was instituted, COVID-19 cases dropped 75%. Last week’s epidemiology report showed that COVID spread more slowly in places in Oklahoma with mask mandates compared to places without a mandate.
But Frye said he believed a mandate would cause some to rebel and not wear a mask.
“I don’t think a mask mandate is enforceable, and secondly I’ve had multiple people come up to me and tell me, ‘Hey I’ll wear a mask, but don’t tell me I have to wear a mask because I’m not going to do it,’” Frye said.
“Do we have individuals in Oklahoma that believe in their freedom so much that they will do the opposite of what you tell them to do? My answer is absolutely we do have those people in Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, announced Monday afternoon that she would call on the state Legislature to enter a special session to renew the exemption for in-person meetings during the pandemic and to call on Stitt to issue a statewide mask mandate.
"Earlier this year, the Legislature felt it prudent to have legislation to protect public bodies and ensure they could continue to operate without fear of spreading COVID-19,” Virgin said. “As this pandemic continues to grow in Oklahoma, it is common sense that we would extend this exemption and protect the lives of Oklahomans. At this juncture, we need to increase our defenses, not put them down."
President-elect Joe Biden has already said that, as president, he would mandate masks on all federal property and try to use his authority under federal transit law to require masks on public transportation. He said would also encourage governors who are resisting mask mandates to at least require masks in public buildings in their states.
State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor said the decision of whether to institute a mask mandate is Stitt’s and not one that should be made by himself or by Frye.
“The governor is a duly elected leader of this state and I’m not,” he said. “That’s a political decision and not a decision for me to make.”
Taylor also addressed problems in Oklahoma’s reporting of daily COVID-19 numbers. On Saturday, the state Health Department reported its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 infection with 4,507 new cases, more than double the previous record.
But Taylor said that while there is definitely significant community spread in Oklahoma, more than 400 of those cases were part of a reporting backlog and as many as 1,100 more were part of various labs having trouble reporting their numbers in the state’s new system.
Frye said various methods of limiting spread are being considered, including consideration of shutting down restaurants and bars and limiting gatherings and crowds at sporting events.
Frye said the governor is looking at “all the options.”
“I think that he is very involved right now in listening to all these potential mitigating factors and he’s trying to use as much data as he can in terms of what could make a substantial difference,” Frye said.