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Public, Press, Tulsa Health Director Shut Out During Visit By White House Coronavirus Doctor

Chris Polansky
Gov. Kevin Stitt greets reporters following a meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force at Tulsa's OSU Center for Health Sciences on Sunday, Aug. 16th.

It was an exclusive meeting.

After abundant anticipation of a visit to Oklahoma by Dr. Deborah Birx from the White House coronavirus task force since President Trump announced it earlier this month, at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa on Sunday, she was kept separated from the public, the media, and even the director of the Tulsa Health Department.

"Dr. [Bruce] Dart was not invited. I asked if he could attend, and I was told that the room, the meeting, was already full," Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum told reporters after the meeting, asked why his health director was not in attendance. "The governor's staff told me that they already had a full meeting."

A Tulsa Health Department spokesperson confirmed Monday that "while he would have welcomed the opportunity, Dr. Dart was not invited to participate in the meeting with Dr. Birx." A press release sent by the governor’s office before the meeting listed First Lady Sarah Stitt as being one of the meeting attendees.

Bynum said the meeting was "very useful," but that Birx didn't offer any specific local guidance.

"I was expecting recommendations to us on things we ought to be doing, and none were made," Bynum said.

The mayor said Birx had high praise for mask mandates generally.

"She has not seen, anywhere, an instance where a governor or a mayor or a city, in our case, put in a mask mandate where you did not see two weeks later a decrease in cases," Bynum said, adding that he and Dart would both prefer Stitt implement a statewide mandate, a measure the governor has vowed not to do.

Bynum said that Birx met privately with Gov. Kevin Stitt for "about 45 minutes" before other attendees, including Oklahoma State Department of Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), and Hennessey Public Schools Superintendent Mike Woods, were allowed to enter for the full meeting.

Stitt told reporters after the meeting that schools were a major focus of discussion.

"It's no time to take our foot off the gas, we've got to continue to be vigilant and continue to social distance, especially as schools are coming back in," Stitt said he took away from the meeting.

"Overall it went really good, and she's pleased with Oklahoma and what we've done so far,” the governor claimed.

Stitt was asked whether Birx suggested the state make any changes in its handling of the pandemic.

“You know, there wasn't really any recommendations that she made in this meeting,” Stitt said. “We've already taken all the White House recommendations and rolled out our color-coded maps and given our different counties recommendations.”

Stitt’s office has previously said they are choosing not to implement Birx’s task force’s recommendations because they are not legally required to do so.

"A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation -- it wasn't a recommendation, but that was something she said, you've got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity." 

Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it “critical to disrupt transmission.” 

"There's a lot of different levers we can pull, but at this point we're in really good shape,” Stitt claimed.

Asked if there was any discussion of whether or not masks should be mandated statewide in schools that choose to reopen, Stitt said Birx did not recommend that.

"She realizes that western Oklahoma and this county may be different than this county, and so she understands that. She did not recommend mandating masks across the state. Like us, she believes in local control." 

The Tulsa World reported the following on Sunday: “Hofmeister said she asked Birx about masks in schools and was told they are a must except in counties with fewer than 1.43 cases per 100,000 people. Beaver County, in the Panhandle, is the only Oklahoma county that currently meets that criteria.”

"We just have to be very cautious as we start going back to school, and that's why Oklahomans need to continue social distancing, need to wear masks when they can't do that, and so we can continue this positive trend that we're on right now," Stitt said, while not wearing a mask or practicing social distancing with reporters.

Bynum and Stitt both said Birx was complimentary of the state's testing capacity.

Birx left without taking questions or addressing the media. Oklahoma is so far the only state on her tour where she has not held even an informal session with reporters. Col. Lance Frye, the state's health commissioner, also drove away without stopping to speak with the press.


The list of attendees provided by the governor’s office following the meeting:

Dr. Deborah Birx

Governor Kevin Stitt

U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern (OK-1)

Interim Commissioner of Health Lance Frye, MD

Secretary of Health and Mental Health Kevin Corbett

Secretary of Science and Innovation Elizabeth Pollard

Secretary of Agency Accountability and State COO John Budd

Dr. Kayse Shrum, OSU Center for Health Sciences President

Dr. Mousumi Som, OSU Center for Health Sciences Chief of Staff 

G.T. Bynum, Mayor of Tulsa

Joy Hofmeister, Superintendent of Public Instruction

Dr. Mike Woods, Hennessey Public Schools Superintendent

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City

Rep. Marcus McIntyre, R-Duncan

Bond Payne, Chief of Staff to Gov. Stitt

Brian Bingman, Chief Policy Advisor to Gov. Stitt

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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