Ten of the 14 ICU beds Comanche County Memorial Hospital has dedicated to COVID-19 patients are full, and the hospital has suspended its ambulance service because of an outbreak among employees.

Dr. Scott Michener, chief medical officer for Comanche County Memorial Hospital, highlighted the statistics Tuesday while he and others addressed the City Council during discussions about rescinding a citywide mandate that requires most people to wear masks in most indoor public settings. Council members ultimately decided to suspend discussion of that action until January, after giving supporters and critics time to argue their points. While some residents and business owners continue to argue the mandate is government overreach that infringes on their constitutional rights and doesn’t really provide protection, supporters say the mandate is an important tool in preventing the spread of the virus.

Michener is among those who have urged the council to support and maintain the mandate. He said while it is normal to have dissenting opinions, in this instance there are hard numbers to show COVID-19 poses a danger.

Michener said Oklahoma City hospitals are full, something Comanche County Memorial Hospital officials know because, as the third largest ER in Oklahoma, they’ve had conversations with Oklahoma City health officials.

“I never remember Oklahoma City asking us to take a patient,” Michener said, adding that only one Oklahoma City-area hospital still is able to take patients, while another hospital has 120 patients and a number of staff members who are out with COVID-19.

Memorial Hospital has 14 ICU beds in its COVID-19 unit, and 10 patients were in beds Tuesday morning, “some on ventilators.” Those ICU beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients are critical to patient care, but they also take beds away from other patients with ICU-level medical problems, he said. A surplus of patients could cause problems because there is no place to put them and that compromises care (a situation Mitchener said has not happened yet).

“We can’t transfer those people,” he said, explaining there isn’t any space at other hospitals.

COVID-19 also has affected the hospital’s ambulance service, which rotates responses with Kirk’s Ambulance Service to serve the community. Kirk’s is the lone responder now; the hospital’s was pulled out of rotation over the weekend because seven people on the hospital’s ambulance crew have COVID-19 and others must be tested. That means up to four less ambulances to respond to emergencies in the community, he said, adding that masks are not perfect, they work.

Brandie Combs, director for the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s District 5 (which includes 10 southwest Oklahoma counties) said the bottom line is: communities with mask mandates have lower rates of infection, according to a variety of studies.

It’s not about individual rights, Combs said, adding it is about getting through a pandemic and that means building strategies to help contain the spread of a virus until a vaccine is developed. She said because a vaccine is not yet reality, communities must develop strategies, which have become social distancing and wearing masks when that cannot be done, as well as washing hands and staying home when you are sick.

“The big picture: it’s not about the individual,” she said.

Combs said Comanche County has had 15 deaths since April, and current reports indicate COVID-19 has become the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. for 2020.

“The virus is real. The numbers are real,” she said.

According to current health department statistics, all but seven of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are in the “orange” category, the second most severe on the department’s color coded chart, and all of Southwest Oklahoma is in that designation.

There is only one county in Southwest Oklahoma with a lower incident rate of COVID-19 than Comanche County (Comanche’s is 16.89 per 100,000, while Cotton County’s is 15.1). And, Lawton’s incidence of active cases per 100,000 has increased more slowly than cities as a whole (198.87 per 100,000, versus 337.50 per 100,000), while its death rate is 2.15 per 100,000, compared to 26.43 per 100,000 for communities without a mask mandate. Michener noted Comanche County Memorial Hospital reported three deaths from COVID-19 over the weekend, patients from Lawton, Indiahoma and Purcell.

But, residents who spoke against the mask mandate at Tuesday’s meeting criticized some of the data as inaccurate or unproven.

Paul Green said no one at the meeting addressed the issue of liberty, explaining the city’s mask mandate is preventing him from worshiping his Savior as he wants, and from assembling peacefully or speaking without his mouth being covered.

Pam Carter said government’s job is not protecting citizen health and it does not have the legal right to mandate health codes on the masses.

“I am responsible for my health,” she said, adding that the government is imposing actions against a virus with a “99 percent cure rate.”

Kim Shea said her complaint is that she and others opposed to the mask mandate have submitted numerous questions to city leaders and supplied numerous medical articles refuting claims about COVID-19 without getting a response to any of them. Another man wearing a shirt with the phrase #LetFreedomBreathe said misinformation is being provided by people who should be providing accurate facts.

“I’m about to lose faith in the medical community,” he said, adding he hasn’t seen any other source for the claim that COVID-19 is the third-leading cause of death this year.

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