Continued growth in Oklahoma’s coronavirus cases have led to a heightened push for statewide mask mandates, but public health officials say that’s not likely.
As seven-day averages for daily case counts surpass 2,000 and hospitalizations hover near 1,000 a day, Gov. Kevin Stitt has maintained the position that Oklahoma views containing the virus as a personal responsibility issue. During a media availability on Monday, two of the state’s top health officials discussed their own positions on mask mandates.
Typically, agency officials such as the commissioner of health stay away from polarizing political questions. That is exactly what the question over mandates has become. And Commissioner of Health Lance Frye said that is part of the reason Oklahoma is staying away from them.
“I’ve had multiple people come up to me and tell me, ‘Hey, I’ll wear a mask, but don’t don’t tell me I have to wear a mask, then I’m not going to do it.’ I mean, if you’re asking, do we have independent people in the state of Oklahoma that believe in their freedom so much that they will do something, the opposite of what you tell them to do? My answer is, ‘Absolutely, we do have those people in Oklahoma,’” Frye said.
He said that mask compliance reduces spread, but it is hard to extricate mask compliance from mask mandate effects in the data. He also raised concerns about their enforceability.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have statewide mandates, according to the AARP’s tally, which was updated on Nov. 6.
State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor revealed his line of thinking in the same media availability Monday. He doesn’t endorse any specific policies, he said — that’s up to the governor. His job is to help the administration vet each potential decision and analyze outcomes.
“I’m here to provide data,” he said. “Opening schools or doing distance education, whether that’s talking about closing down bars or disrupting houses of worship — that’s not science. That’s not a science question. That’s a political question. And if I ever run for office, then I’ll need to answer that.”
Frye and Taylor said the Stitt Administration still has several options on the table as far as mitigation measures go. Frye said that limiting bar and restaurant capacity or hours have been considered, as well as a few other options, but he didn’t indicate which were seeing the most support.
On Monday night, when the state recorded a record-high 1,102 Oklahomans in the hospital due to the virus, The Tulsa World reported no intensive care unit beds were currently available in Tulsa hospitals.
In response to that news, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said hospitals were enacting surge plans for managing ICU patient care.
"Just as our health care system is a regional one, our response to fighting COVID-19 must be a regional one too," Bynum said. "Tulsans can not fight this on our own. I again implore the state and our neighboring communities to listen to those medical professionals asking for steps to be taken that will slow the spread of this virus. Politically convenient speeches about freedom and personal responsibility are not preventing our ICUs from being maxed out."
Stitt and Frye will join hospital administrators and other health officials for a COVID-19 update Tuesday at 2 p.m. House Minority Leader Emily Virgin also announced a press conference for Tuesday, where she and her caucus will call for a statewide mask mandate and a special session.
Oklahoma reported 2,197 new cases of coronavirus on Monday, the second-most ever reported in a single day. That followed Saturday's massive increase of 4,741 cases and Sunday's subsequent removal of 234 duplicates from that figure. In a rare move, state health officials did not update the coronavirus numbers on Sunday.
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