As coronavirus surges in Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt mum on next steps
As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to surge in Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt won’t say if he plans to impose new restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus.
Although some of the governor’s mitigation efforts remain in place, a legal battle over an 11 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants led the governor to roll back perhaps the most stringent COVID-19 limitation he has imposed in months.
Stitt retracted his statewide bar and restaurant curfew after an Oklahoma District Court judge hobbled the restriction as a result of a legal challenge brought by bar owners.
But from Nov. 17 — the day after Stitt imposed the inconsistently enforced curfew — to Wednesday — the day he rescinded the order — new COVID-19 infections in Oklahoma increased by 60% and hospitalizations due to the virus were up nearly 30%.
Stitt cited rising COVID-19 hospitalizations as the reason for limiting bar and restaurant hours in the first place. Hospitalizations have come down a tad from the state’s record high of 1,926 COVID patients hospitalized on Jan. 9.
Asked what, if any, new steps Stitt is considering to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, his office did not give specifics and leaned on the governor’s oft-used mantra of “personal responsibility.”
Despite pleas from many health care experts, Stitt has refused to impose a statewide mask mandate, saying such an order would be “unenforceable.”
Stitt remains committed to striking a balance between prioritizing the health and lives of Oklahomans and limiting the negative impacts to Oklahoma’s economy, said spokeswoman Baylee Lakey.
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“The governor and his team continue to look at all options as we work to quickly get the COVID-19 vaccine to Oklahomans, especially our most vulnerable populations,” she said. “The Oklahoma State Department of Health continues to lead the way in vaccine distribution, as we are now ranked seventh among all states by the CDC in vaccines administered per capita.
“The governor believes we are making great strides in the right direction and asks all Oklahomans to help slow the spread of the virus by taking personal responsibility seriously, including wearing a mask and social distancing.”
Although Oklahoma has ranked among the top states for vaccine administration, the state is still months away from having widespread inoculations that can blunt the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts estimate 70% of the population would have to become immune to COVID-19 — either through vaccinations, people acquiring antibodies from having the virus or a combination of both — to achieve herd immunity, which would largely halt person-to-person transmission of the virus.
Dr. Douglas Drevets, OU Health Chief of Infectious Diseases, said he expects COVID-19 vaccines won’t become available to the general public until summer.
“There are 4 million residents in the state of Oklahoma,” he said. “We want to try to vaccinate at least 3 million of those or more. Even if you do 50,000 vaccinations a week, which is a heroic number, it’s going to take time to get there.”
As of Friday, less than 1% of Oklahomans have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Roughly 5% of Oklahomans have received at least one shot of the two-dose regimen.
Health care experts agree the latest COVID-19 surge playing out across the country is partly the result of people gathering for the holidays. The post-holiday wave of new COVID-19 infections is weighing heavily on Oklahoma's already overtaxed health care system.
Oklahoma is experiencing the third worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country, behind Arizona and California, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data comparing the seven-day average of new COVID infections per capita. December was Oklahoma’s deadliest month of the pandemic so far, and January is on track to be worse.
Roughly 30% of patients in Oklahoma’s hospitals are there due to COVID-19, said Oklahoma Hospital Association President Patti Davis.
“We know that as the positivity rate goes up, hospitalizations follow,” she said. “In order for us to stem the need for hospitalizations, we need to turn the community spread in the right way, not the wrong way.
“That being said, the next 30-45 days are going to be extremely critical in Oklahoma as we saw our positive rates being all-time highs.”
For weeks, Oklahoma has been the worst state for test positivity and ranked fourth-highest for new COVID-19 cases per capita, according to weekly reports issued by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The state is ranked fifth-highest in hospital admissions per bed in the latest report.
Hospital leaders are also discussing how to ration care if the pandemic continues to worsen and health care resources and medical staff run scarce.
Davis said hospitals aren’t at the point yet where they have to implement what is called “crisis standards of care.”
“This is something that hospitals are talking about because we have to be prepared,” she said.
In northeast Oklahoma, Dr. Sam Ratermann, family medicine physician at Integris Hospital in Grove, said the intensive care unit hasn’t had a staffed hospital bed open for a prolonged period of time in months. As soon as a bed opens up, it’s filled almost immediately, he said.
Ratermann, who is the president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians, said 50-75% of his patients in the past month have had COVID-19.
Across the state, Integris is taking steps to limit hospital capacity by trying to put off non-medically necessary surgeries that require patients to stay overnight and finding other creative ways to provide care to a high volume of sick patients, Ratermann said.
“The goal continues to remain to save as many lives as possible,” he said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of that, but it’s become increasingly more challenging as more and more beds are taken up.”
Stitt has imposed the following mandates in recent months to limit the spread of COVID-19:
• Requiring seating in bars and restaurants be spaced six feet apart
• Limiting capacity at indoor youth sporting events
• Mandating state employees and visitors in state buildings to wear masks inside when social distancing isn’t possible
• Limiting public gatherings to 50% of building occupancy, with exceptions for churches and some other entities
Reporter Carmen Forman covers state government, politics and the COVID-19 pandemic for The Oklahoman. Send story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on Twitter with @CarmenMForman. Support the work of Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a print or digital subscription today at oklahoman.com/subscribe.