Masks will not be mandated for Oklahoma residents, although state health officials are creating a color-coded map to designate COVID-19 hotspots, Gov. Kevin Stitt said Tuesday.
Stitt and Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Lance Frye were providing updates on Oklahoma’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Stitt said while he and others will encourage residents to wear masks/facial coverings when it is not possible to social distance, he will not require that action.
“I’m not going to mandate wearing masks in the State of Oklahoma,” he said, adding he doesn’t want to get to a point where the state is “shaming people for not wearing masks” and he would not change his mind. “No, I will not reconsider mandating masks.”
Stitt said that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the benefit when residents are going to be in close proximity in public places, adding Oklahoma doesn’t want to see the spikes in COVID-19 numbers being seen elsewhere.
Stitt said while Oklahoma positive cases are increasing (cases went up by 585 between Sunday and Tuesday morning), the state still is within the manageable level cited as a factor that allowed Oklahoma to move from Phase 1 on April 24 to Phase 3 on June 3. Stitt said Oklahoma had 306 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on April 24, compared to 315 people in hospitals Tuesday. Health officials say the state has a capacity of 4,600 beds.
Stitt said that proves Oklahoma has “pretty much” flattened the curve of hospitalized patients, even after the state is 68 days into its phased reopening plan. He also said officials said from the beginning that they expected an increase in cases, which is why the state cannot “let our guard down in this virus.”
Cases are increasing in a specific population, he said, noting 71 percent of the new cases of COVID-19 reported since the state began reopening have been under age 50. That age range has a death rate of 0.08 percent; health care experts have said the biggest risk from the virus is to elderly residents over the age of 60 and people with health issues.
That’s why Stitt will be issuing another executive order, one that will direct Frye and the Oklahoma State Department of Health to develop a color-coded system for Oklahoma. Based on a federal plan, the idea is to color code Oklahoma counties based on COVID-19 data, allowing residents to make decisions based on virus hot spots. The details are to be released this week.
Stitt said the plan reflects the reality that Oklahoma has seen “localized outbreaks in different parts of the state.” A color-coded map will give Oklahomans an accurate picture of the situation in their communities, he said, adding it encourages residents to be personally responsible for their actions.
And, keeping counties green — the best rating — doesn’t mean zero cases, but rather a manageable number of cases.
“We know we will continue to see new cases as we find our new normal,” Stitt said, predicting the country may be dealing with COVID-19 for the next 24 months.
Frye, acknowledging the largest single day increase in positive cases since the pandemic began, said Oklahoma is in a better position than neighboring states, ranking 42 in cumulative cases per 100,000 persons. It’s not the last day for increases, he said, predicting there will be more days of increased numbers, which is why the state has strategically invested in hospitals across the state to keep rates manageable.
Frye, Stitt and Secretary of Science and Innovation Elizabeth Pollard said Oklahoma will continue to use federal funding designated to Oklahoma through the federal CARES Act. Frye cited the $4.2 million that the State Department of Health used to purchase and furnish mobile health units to make testing more readily available, and $35 million that will fund $15,000 grants to each long-term health care facility in the state to help buy personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies.
Frye and Pollard said Oklahoma also is focusing on strengthening contact tracing, or the process that health care providers use to identify and contact those who have been in contact with a COVID-19 patient.
Pollard said the state will continue its efforts to do 100,000 tests per month, by allocating $35 million toward that effort “over the foreseeable future.” State health officials also will focus on improving telemedicine capabilities in rural areas, and will designate $15 million to digitize and modernize data entry capability for the state’s health departments, she said.
Stitt and Frye also directed comments to the state’s younger residents, noting concerns about their activities over the Fourth of July weekend. Stitt attended Tuesday’s press conference wearing a black mask, pulling the mask up over his mouth and nose to demonstrate the ease with which masks could be worn.
“It’s this easy,” he said, adding research indicates that wearing a mask when you cannot social distance (stand at least 6 feet away from others) significantly lowers the transfer of the COVID-19 virus, which he called a “small price to pay to keep our economy open.”
“I strongly encourage Oklahomans to follow this,” he said, explaining that the White House also would be directing people to wear masks in public when social distancing is not possible.