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As Outbreak Continues To Worsen Locally, Tulsa Officials Discuss Making Masks Mandatory

Chris Polansky
Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith addresses reporters while wearing a mask on Wednesday, June 24th.

Tulsa County on Wednesday again broke a record for most new confirmed COVID-19 infections reported in a single day, and, as the spread continues to worsen, officials said they are discussing the possibility of making the wearing of masks mandatory and enforceable by law.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, announced 259 new confirmed cases of the virus, with more than 1,000 active cases throughout Tulsa County. The number of hospitalizations are also at an "all-time high," Dart said. Tulsa County's 259 new cases make up more than half of the 482 new cases reported statewide.

"I said all along it's important to follow the data," Dart said. "Numbers for the month of June are growing in the state. We are seeing those same steep upward trends here in Tulsa County."

A plurality of new cases confirmed in the week of June 14th-20th, over 40%, Dart said, were patients in the 18-to-35 age group. That demographic's increase in hospitalizations was also 133% over that time period. About 1 in 4 hospitalization in Tulsa County is a patient in the 18-to-35 age group. 

"In the early stages of this pandemic, everyone took our advice very seriously," Dart said. "We flattened the curve. We avoided surges in our health care systems."

"But after months of the same messaging, the data is starting to show us that individuals are becoming lax regarding public health recommendations to protect yourself."

"We knew we'd see an increase in cases as our local economy reopened, but this has been higher than projected and it's concerning if we continue this upward trend of new cases," Dart said.

Dart had strong words for residents between the ages of 18 and 50, who he said make up about 70% of all new confirmed infections.

"If you are in this demographic, you may think you are invincible," Dart said, adding: "Right now, more than half of all hospitalizations are for people under the age of 50."

"While the risk of severe complications is lower for younger people, they can spread to those more vulnerable like their parents or immunocompromised friends," Dart said.

Dart said Tulsa Health Department epidemiologists have identified faith-based activities, funerals, and small house gatherings as some sites where the virus is most easily spread, and said that Oklahoma City health officials have also added weddings, bars, and gyms to that list in their community. (A Tulsa firefighter is thought to have contracted COVID-19 at a wedding, according to comments this afternoon from Tulsa Fire Department Chief Michael Baker.)

"You know, I'm not sure when masks became a political issue, but masks are very much a public health issue. Wearing a mask is a selfless and kind act and it shows that we care about others and that we care about more people than just ourselves," Dart said.

"This is our new normal. Masks are our new normal."

Speaking after Dart, Mayor G.T. Bynum attempted, as he did last week, to shift the focus off of large events like the president's rally and recent protests, and onto how well or how poorly Tulsans have followed public health guidelines.

"The challenge for us right now in Tulsa around mitigating these increases that we're seeing, as you heard [Dart] say a minute ago, is there isn't one big event that a lot of people were at and went and spread it," Bynum said.

The mayor, like last week, expressed disappointment in the rate of mask usage in the Tulsa area.

"We've been coming to this podium week after week for months telling people to wear a mask, and yet you can still go out in the community and you might see 10-to-20% of folks wearing them," Bynum said.

"I don't want people watching this to take my word for it. I'm an elected official. And if you don't know Dr. Dart, you don't have to take his word for it. If you want to know if a mask works, call your doctor and ask them. These are the people that you trust with your health and the lives of your family, so call them. Ask them if you should be wearing a mask. Those are some of the most valuable conversations I've had about the importance of mask wearing, were with physicians in our community," Bynum said.

(Last week, Bynum denied receiving a letter signed by hundreds of Oklahoma doctors, nurses, and other health care providers asking him to intervene to stop the president's rally at the BOK Center over fears it could trigger a major spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths.)

Bynum said he has had discussions with Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Col. Lance Frye and Dart about making masks mandatory in public, but that, for the moment, he does not feel it necessary and Dart has not yet recommended it.

"I think our general feeling is that we would sure like to remind people and encourage people of the importance of wearing them without placing the burden on law enforcement of enforcing such a mandate," Bynum said. 

"For right now, we are not going to do that. If we get to a point where Dr. Dart tells me that we need to do that, though, to protect people in our community, then we will," Bynum said. "But right now we are not at that point."

Bynum also stressed the importance of Tulsa and Tulsa County coordinating with the state of Oklahoma and other local municipalities. 

"I don't want us to run into what we, by necessity, ran into in the early going of this pandemic, where Tulsa did something and then it was a scramble for our suburban neighbors to understand why we'd done it and decide if they were going to do it or not," he said.

Bynum said he has a meeting with leaders of other cities in the Tulsa area scheduled for Friday.

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