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Local Health Leaders Embrace CDC Mask Guidance Amid COVID Surge; Bynum Says No Mandate Coming

City of Tulsa
Screenshot from a Friday virtual press conference of local health leaders and elected officials discussing the current surge in COVID-19 cases in the Tulsa area.

Leaders from several Tulsa health care systems joined with local officials Friday for an update on the increasingly precarious COVID-19 situation in the area, calling on residents to do their part in helping stem the rising tide of largely preventable hospitalizations and suffering stemming from low vaccination rates and the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus.

"The rate of rise in which we got to the lack of beds in comparison to last winter is much more steep," said Dr. Mousumi Som, chief of staff at OSU Medical Center. "This speaks to the transmissibility of this variant. We know that as we open up schools that the likelihood of the number of cases will go up."

Hillcrest HealthCare System Chief Medical Officer Dr. Guy Sneed said the increase in COVID patients was causing complications with regard to the ability to treat other patients, as well.

"We're in a surge, again," Sneed said. "That impacts our other capacities in our ability to take care of patients without COVID-19."

Several hospital officials shared interactions with patients that stuck with them.

"We had a 40-year-old otherwise healthy male that was admitted to one of our emergency rooms within the last couple of weeks," said Dr. Cliff Robertson, CEO of Saint Francis Health System. "This individual required mechanical ventilation. And the sad part of this story was, his family was, in fact, shocked that he could die from this infection.

"We've also recently admitted a young woman who was in her 32nd week of pregnancy. She was admitted with severe hypoxia, with an oxygen deficit, required mechanical ventilation, and unfortunately required an emergency C-section. As of this morning, that patient is still requiring mechanical ventilation."

"I was seeing a patient -- this was about four weeks ago or six weeks ago," said Dr. Anuj Malik, infectious disease medical director at Ascension St. John. "Really unfortunate story. Unvaccinated individual waiting to see how it's going to play out. When I went into see her, she was on a lot of oxygen, and she tells me, 'I wish I had taken the vaccine.' Tears in her eyes. And, you know, I got a lump in my throat -- I didn't want to tell her that it's possible that she may never leave the hospital."

Malik also shared a story of one of the many children left parentless after a COVID death.

"When it gets bad, it destroys a family. Just as an example: a young kid who does gymnastics, obviously not vaccinated, came home and her parent got infected. That parent died two weeks later. What is this poor child going to think for the rest of her life?" Malik said.

"That kind of thing I'm talking about -- the impact is not just the death rate, but the impact is sort of the social impact on the family. I mean, yes, death is terrible, but what happens to the people who are in the family? This is a very human sort of question," Malik said.

Several of the hospital leaders on the call, along with Tulsa Health Department executive director Dr. Bruce Dart, said they supported the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new guidance recommending everyone in areas with severe outbreaks -- like Tulsa -- wear masks indoors, regardless of whether they've been vaccinated. 

"All preventative tools are important to stop the spread," Dart said. "We can't just vaccine, we can't just mask, we can't just wash our hands, we can't just watch our distancing. Vaccines, masking indoors regardless of vaccination status, frequent handwashing, and social distancing all work in tandem to slow the spread."

"I want to remind everyone that our children who are not old enough to receive the vaccine are still at risk for infection. Please consider the children as you make your personal choices," added Dart, who told the Tulsa Public Schools board of education Monday that there were no pediatric ICU beds available in area hospitals that night.

"As far as masking, why would the CDC recommend it indoors regardless of vaccination status? Because we don't want to stress test the system," Som said. "If it was 20-below and the streets were covered with ice, you wouldn't stress test your car and drive 110 miles per hour down the road regardless of its rating, so you could protect yourself and other drivers on the road."

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said he shared the belief of many of the health leaders that vaccination is critical and called on Tulsans to get the shots if eligible and to consult health care providers if they were still hesitant, but despite the CDC recommendation for universal masking he said he would not pursue any mask requirement for the city.

"I can not support putting in a mandate of that sort to be enforced on people who have been vaccinated when that is not what is driving our hospitalization levels here," Bynum said. "For me, the great public policy question that we have to work on is reducing the impact on our local health care system, and the issue there is with people not being vaccinated, it isn't with people not wearing masks."

While the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended schools require universal masking when returning to the classroom, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill in May illegalizing such requirements and has said he does not intend to reverse his decision. Dart did not directly answer a question regarding whether he had requested state leadership reassess that choice on behalf of the Tulsa Health Department.

"I actually had a meeting with [State Health] Commissioner [Lance] Frye earlier this week. It was a meeting to get us caught up together, and we very much talked about the CDC guidelines around that and just kind of left the conversation there," was Dart's answer in full.

Dart called the current spike in cases "alarming" and the hospitalization rate "staggering," noting the numbers were worse than at any point since January.

"And this is entirely preventable," Dart said.

Neither the governor nor the state health department has held a COVID-19 media availability since a virtual press conference with health department officials on July 9, in which time the number of Oklahomans hospitalized has skyrocketed from 208 to 965. The state currently ranks in the bottom ten nationally for new COVID infections, deaths, hospital admissions and test positivity.

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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