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Oklahoma virus hospitalizations surge due to omicron variant; Stitt wants non-teachers subbing in classrooms

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Patients in some Oklahoma hospitals are being treated in hallways, even closets, as the omicron variant causes a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations, state health officials said Tuesday.

Leaders of Oklahoma City’s four major hospital systems said they have no intensive care beds available because of the surge in admissions.

Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer at Integris Health, said emergency rooms are also full and that patients face up to a 24-hour wait for a room.

“It feels, and sometimes even looks, like a war zone,” Watson said. “Cases have risen so rapidly we have to care for patients in hallways, sometimes closets.”

The number of people hospitalized in Oklahoma due to the coronavirus is nearing levels last seen in August when the delta variant surged. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported the three-day average number of hospitalizations reached 1,489.

Oklahoma Hospital Association President Patti Davis said the number is the highest since it hit 1,554 in August.

Dr. Chad Smith, chief medical officer for Mercy Hospital, said emergency room waiting rooms are also overflowing.

“It is even more disheartening to see some of the same patients you saw at your previous shift still boarded in the emergency room, waiting for a room to open,” Smith said.

The rise in coronavirus also is causing school districts to shut down or switch to virtual learning, largely because of a shortage of teachers and support staff who are out sick.

StateImpact Oklahoma, which is tracking school closures statewide, reported that more than 200 districts have closed schools or switched to distance learning in recent weeks due to the surge.

As a result of the closures, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said he planned to sign an executive order on Tuesday that will allow state workers to volunteer as substitute teachers and continue to receive their state salary.

“From the beginning, we’ve made it clear that schools need to be open for in-person learning,” Stitt said. “Oklahoma students deserve that option.”

Stitt’s plan was immediately panned by some educators who criticized the governor for signing a bill last year that would prohibit school boards from implementing mask mandates.

“This is a short-sighted solution to the challenges our schools have been facing for 22 months during a global pandemic,” said state Sen. Carri Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat and former schoolteacher. “The executive order shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. It diminishes teachers’ contributions and expertise in the field of education, undermines the safety of our classrooms and ignores the complexity involved in educating a child.”

The ban on mask mandates in schools was temporarily blocked by a district judge last year, an order the state has appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Oklahoma has skyrocketed over the past two weeks from 2,751.57 new cases per day on Jan. 2 to 10,641.71 new cases per day on Jan. 16, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.