February 22, 2024

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COVID-19 Infighting Gets Ugly in Oklahoma

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/Shutterstock
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/Shutterstock

Last Wednesday, the mayor of Yukon, Oklahoma, filed a police report.

Shelli Selby alleged she had been harassed by Republican state Rep. Jay Steagall, who represents the area, over an emergency proclamation she issued that mandated masks for restaurant workers, according to The Yukon Progress.

Steagall reportedly has argued that “the mayor does not have the authority to issue the content of that emergency proclamation that she thinks she does.”

In addition to the police report, Selby filed a complaint to Rep. Charles McCall, Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, in which she wrote that “Steagall has harassed, ridiculed, demeaned, and threatened me in direct response to the painstaking decision that I made as mayor of my city” and claimed that the representative eventually began calling her friends to warn the mayor that she was in “big trouble” and that “people were out to get me.”

Steagall had not yet publicly responded to the allegations on Monday afternoon and a voicemail left by The Daily Beast for his office was not returned by press time.

Bizarre though the episode may have been, it was an escalation of a months-long culture war over a century-old public health solution to a deadly virus. And conversations with officials, doctors, and residents suggested it was just the latest example of a remarkably brazen attitude among some Oklahomans toward a pandemic that has shown little sign of letting up in the state.

As state Rep. Regina Goodwin told The Daily Beast: “If you close your eyes to a tidal wave, you’re still going to get hit.”

Even before President Donald Trump brought his coronavirus-infected team to set up his 6,000-person rally in Tulsa, the state was struggling with a COVID-19 surge. Oklahoma has fought the deadly virus the way other red states have—an uphill battle made harder, some said, by Gov. Kevin Stitt’s refusal to embrace a mask mandate, even after testing positive himself. Local ordinances have created mask mandates and slowed the spread in some areas, but on Monday the state’s hospitals were struggling to find places to put patients, according to the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.

“When the governor opened up our state, many people treated it like the virus didn’t exist anymore,” said Dr. George Monks, the association’s president. “A lot of young people went to bars, and we had a really large surge in people under the age of 35 getting COVID.”

Goodwin, who serves the Tulsa area and is chair of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus, slammed the governor’s hesitancy on masks and lack of “leadership.”

“Oklahoma was opened up too soon,” she said. Stitt’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The evidence is in Goodwin’s favor. The state’s surge has only increased in recent weeks, hitting a new record daily case count on Friday, at 1,106. This week, tribal leaders with the Cherokee Nation said they have seen a 30-day spike in cases from 219 to 684, largely from gatherings without proper mask-wearing or social distancing. As of Monday, the state had a cumulative total of 38,225 cases and 550 deaths.

Though the state’s death numbers have remained relatively low, other states have shown that rising case counts are typically followed by rising hospitalization and death rates in subsequent weeks.

Monks called it “challenging” for physicians to find beds for all of the COVID-19 patients in the state as the virus has begun to strain hospital capacity.

“We still have beds, but it’s difficult to figure out where those beds are,” said Monks. “I have doctors sometimes spending hours on the phone, calling around looking for beds to place these patients.”

And of course, the emotional toll is “weighing heavily on our physicians and our whole health-care team,” he added.

“We form bonds with these patients,” said Monks, “and one day you can come in and they may not be there anymore. With this virus, you could be doing pretty well one day and then very, very quickly decompensate. It’s a deadly virus.”

Monks said he believes a statewide mask mandate would go far in relieving the pressure on health workers.

“People should be free to breathe and free to live,” Goodwin agreed, lamenting how politicized masks have become in her state. “You cannot talk about doing good business if you don’t have good people alive to buy and sell.”

Along with a mask mandate, argued Goodwin, the state needs a quicker turnaround time on diagnostic tests to ease what Monks called a “tremendous backlog.”

“We need more testing, we need reagents, and we need quick rapid results,” said Goodwin. “We’re still not there in Oklahoma. Those issues are critical if we want to try to get a handle on this epidemic.”

Of course, it would be difficult to talk about a rise in cases in the state without mentioning Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa. Photos and videos from the rally showed Trump campaign surrogates not wearing masks.

The Trump campaign admitted on the day of the rally that six of its staffers tested positive for the virus and would not attend the event itself. And in recent weeks, public health officials in Tulsa have said that the rally likely contributed to a surge in the area’s cases—a consequence many local leaders warned the city about ahead of time.

Though President Trump said on Friday that he doesn’t “think” Herman Cain—the 74-year-old entrepreneur and 2012 presidential candidate who died last week due to complications from the virus—contracted the infection at his rally, many have raised eyebrows at the possible connection. Dan Calabrese, the editor of Cain’s website, said in a statement last week, “People will speculate about the Tulsa rally, but Herman did a lot of traveling.”

Cain tested positive on June 29, nine days after the event, within the widely acknowledged incubation period of one to 14 days. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany last week stressed that no one should “politicize” Cain’s death.

Goodwin didn’t seem to think it was “politicizing” a man’s death to lay out the facts.

“The bottom line is this,” said Goodwin, “Anytime you have gatherings, anytime folks are not wearing masks, it’s already been proven that there’s a rise in cases. The fact that Herman Cain is dead is something folks cannot deny.”

The state’s public health department did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast on Monday. Monks, meanwhile, said he could not explicitly point to the epidemiological cause of the latest surges, partly because he said testing turnarounds and contact tracing have seen hurdles in the state. But he did acknowledge, “whether it be a wedding or funeral or political rally or protest—all of those are potential hot spots for this virus to transmit.”

The news isn’t all bad though, said Monks, who pointed to a recent moderate decline in the state’s positivity rate on COVID-19 tests, which is a hopeful indicator, even if the state is still behind on turnaround times.

Stitt announced last week that the state will allocate $10 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide the state’s schools with personal protective equipment, “in order to open safely for in-person learning.” That equipment will include 1.7 million reusable masks—two per teacher and student—and 42,000 clear face shields, along with 1.2 million pairs of disposable gloves and 1.2 million disposable gowns.

Stitt also signed an executive order directing Oklahoma’s health department and the state’s department of education to develop a plan for teachers to be tested monthly for COVID-19.

But national public health officials and other experts have argued that, if the resources were available, ideally testing would be conducted daily in congregate settings. And without mask mandates in many areas, it’s hard to say how hard-hit they might be.

“We have dead people, we have sick people,” said Goodwin. “It’s just getting worse.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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