What medical groups say about reopening Oklahoma’s economy

BY KATHRYN MCNUTT
Oklahoma Watch &
PAUL MONIES
Oklahoma Watch
04/28/2020 01:00 PM
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A line of cars on April 15 waits to exit Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City before driving to the State Capitol. The rally, organized by a group called OK Back 2 Work, was intended to push state leaders to lift business closures enacted because of the pandemic. WHITNEY BRYEN/OKLHAOMA WATCH
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Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
In the wake of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to start reopening Oklahoma’s economy, Oklahoma Watch reached out for reaction from top medical groups and checked the remarks from Oklahoma City and Tulsa mayors. Here’s what we gleaned:

Oklahoma State Medical Association

Dr. George Monks, OSMA president, stuck by his initial assertion that the governor’s May 1 date for the first phase of reopening was hasty. But he said Stitt had to take into account more than just medical advice.

“He’s got economic advisors and he’s got medical advisors, and he’s in a really tough position because he has to weigh the economic health of our state with the health of the citizens,” Monks said. “It’s a really, really tough job. But he’s made a decision and so now we’re moving forward and we’re going to continue to work with the governor to make sure that we take care of the Oklahoma citizens.” 

Monks said data shows Oklahoma is in good shape so far on hospital beds and ventilators. 
“We’re very blessed as a state to have a large number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators compared to our population,” Monks said. “We were in a good position going into it and we’re significantly below our maximum capacity on all of those things.” 

Testing capability, especially on the antibody side, needs to be an ongoing focus as the state moves through each reopening phase. On an individual level, Monks said residents should still adhere to personal hygiene, masking guidelines and social distancing guidelines.

Oklahoma Nurses Association

The decision to start opening “personal touch businesses” this soon could undo all the progress to flatten the curve that social distancing has made, said Jane Nelson, CEO of the group, which represents 50,000 registered nurses.

“Our underlying concern about opening up is how transferable the virus is,” Nelson said. “We don’t have enough information to ramp up. We have not hit the surge. We haven’t even hit the date for the surge.”

April 30 is the projected peak day in Oklahoma for hospitalizations of acute COVID-19 patients, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.

Nelson said the decision to start reopening businesses seems to be based more on the expiration of Stitt’s 30-day executive order declaring a state health emergency than on scientific reasoning.

She said she hears from some nurses that they’re instructed to reuse personal protective masks because hospital administrators don’t know if they have enough.

On Stitt’s allowing businesses to open, Nelson said, “We haven’t even begun to see the effects of the elective surgeries.”

Stitt said in mid-April that he would start lifting a moratorium on elective surgeries beginning April 24.

Oklahoma Hospital Association

Susie Wallace, communications director, said the association has no statement on the reopening of businesses. She said association President Patti Davis was not available for an interview.

The OHA has 114 member hospitals and 17 member hospital systems.

On April 16 the association’s website posted Stitt’s amended executive order allowing some elective surgeries beginning April 24, a week earlier than first announced. “This new order was a surprise to the hospitals and the OHA,” it said.

The posting also noted that each hospital should take into account the availability of personal protective equipment and testing capability both on site and regionally.

Oklahoma Osteopathic Association

In a statement on April 24, Dr. Timothy Moser, OOA president, urged the governor to proceed with extreme caution.

“We have grave concerns on the announced plan to open the state this week as the pandemic continues to make its way to rural parts of our state. So many physicians and their clinical staff focus on caring for our elderly rural population in hospitals and long-term care facilities, where it is significantly more difficult to get access to health care,” Moser said.

The progress in statewide testing capabilities and mobile testing sites in rural areas is making a difference, he said.

“But as the White House model for Oklahoma’s safe-reopening date is closer to June 8, the OOA physician members are concerned about the effects opening the state too soon will have on rural Oklahoma and the potential for further widespread COVID-19 infection in the state,” Moser said.

The OOA represents more than 2,300 practicing and retired physicians, residents, interns and medical students.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa Mayors

Mayors in the state’s two largest cities struck resigned tones in separate press conferences on April 24. Neither Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt nor Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum overtly criticized Stitt, but they said the state’s decision to enter the first phase of reopening introduced additional risks into their cities. 

“Without a vaccine or a proven treatment, May 1st isn’t likely going to feel any different than August 1st or November 1st,” Holt said. “No matter how much we try, we’re going to have new cases every day, and deaths will continue to occur as well. The fundamentals of this crisis don’t really change … This is our life now.

“On the other hand is another reality. We can’t shelter in place for two years straight. I recognize this. This city has risen to this moment beautifully … … But I recognize that doing this just as we have for one to two years is not a realistic option.” 

Bynum said the statewide lifting of restrictions, and the resulting actions by surrounding cities in Tulsa County, made it increasingly hard to keep Tulsa’s restrictions in place beyond April 30. 

“Waiting on these cases to decline, as people from 100 miles in every direction are being encouraged to ease social distancing, would be futile,” Bynum said. “Tulsans have already undertaken an unprecedented system of sacrifice to slow the spread of this virus in our community … I could not, in good conscience, ask Tulsans to continue making these extreme personal and financial sacrifices at such a level in pursuit of a goal that will be impossible to reach in a reasonable period of time.” 

Bynum and Holt said they will continue to monitor the latest infection data and consult with their local health departments if the situation worsens in their cities.

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