Saying wearing a mask is a strictly optional "personal choice," Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye on Friday told reporters at the department's first media briefing in over a month that he does not endorse the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines recommending universal indoor masking to help reduce the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant in areas of high transmission.
"For now, in Oklahoma, we still think that the best approach is to assess your own risk," Frye said, claiming that masking isn't necessarily needed in areas of low population density in Oklahoma.
"There are certain parts of our state where there's just, they don't have the population density, and if they are fully vaccinated and they feel that they are in a safe environment, then I wouldn't -- I'm not going to say that they should have to wear a mask," Frye said. "If they are at any time concerned about their environment or where they are or their own personal health, or any risk at all, we always encourage them to wear a mask."
"We've always recommended wearing masks. It is a personal decision. There haven't, I mean, we've been doing this for a year and a half, there haven't been any statewide mask mandates. And we do recommend people take personal responsibility," Frye said.
The CDC updated their guidance in July to recommend wearing masks regardless of vaccination status in areas of high COVID transmission, citing data that found vaccinated individuals were spreading the delta variant during the current spike in infections and hospitalizations. As of Friday, all of Oklahoma with the exceptions of Harper and Ellis counties in the northwest part of the state were reporting high transmission.
Frye also said he would not comment on whether he endorsed CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance recommending schools require universal masking in K-12 settings. Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed a law restricting school districts from exercising local control with regard to mask requirements and has stated he does not want to see students made to wear masks.
"We are not getting into the policy of whether schools, what they should be doing as far as their own policies," Frye said. "We recommend that, you know, people should be wearing masks to try to mitigate the spread."
"There's really no silver bullet," Frye said. "What we do know is that we are continuing to recommend mask wearing to anyone that's in a situation where they feel like it needs to be done. And we know that, for instance, our unvaccinated children from 5 to 12 are at risk, so we would recommend for them to be wearing masks."
Asked by a reporter whether relying on "personal responsibility" has demonstrably failed, given the state's bottom-ten status nationally for new COVID-19 infections, deaths, hospitalizations, and vaccinations, Frye said he believed in Oklahomans.
"Well, I don't know -- if you're not going to rely on people to do what they need to do, I think we're in trouble," Frye said.