Stitt Administration Choosing To No Longer Receive Weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force Reports

Dec 29, 2020

Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma State Department of Health, or OSDH, will no longer make publicly available weekly reports for the state prepared by the White House coronavirus task force.

The Center for Public Integrity reported on Dec. 17 that the reports, previously automatically sent each week to all 50 states, are now available only by request.

"As of right now, they are not planning to request them going forward," said Hayden Benge, account executive at public relations firm Saxum, which has been contracted to handle COVID-19 communications for the state health department.

"The most recent report we have received from the White House Coronavirus Task Force is posted on the OSDH website," said Jackie Shawnee, chief of communications at OSDH, in a statement. "The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently began publishing daily national COVID-19 information on HealthData.gov which will give Oklahomans a more real-time look at the data.”

While much of the data included in the weekly reports is, as Shawnee noted, now publicly available on a daily basis, the reports also contain specific recommendations tailored to individual states, as well a breakdown of where each state ranks according to metrics including COVID-19 infection rate, hospital admissions and test positivity rate.

A reporter asked Stitt at a Wednesday press conference whether he would be requesting the reports going forward.

"The information is out there, as far as we're concerned," Stitt said. "That's my direction to the health department here locally: We're going to be transparent with every piece of data that we have, give it to Oklahomans, and that's what we've done from the very beginning of this."

In fact, the state initially held the reports close, releasing them publicly only after local officials across Oklahoma expressed surprise and frustration that they were learning about specific federal public health recommendations for their communities via journalists.

The task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, has seen much of its guidance to Stitt go unheeded. The governor has frequently rejected recommendations included in the reports, which have included the closure of all bars, encouraging Oklahomans to avoid all gatherings with individuals outside their households, business capacity restrictions and a statewide mask mandate

In July, Stitt's refusal to implement federal recommendations drew attention from a U.S. House of Representatives coronavirus subcommittee, which requested an explanation from the governor. That same month, the governor's office said they were not legally required to follow the guidance.

Pence's team has  been critical of Oklahoma's pandemic response, including in a November report which called the state's efforts "inadequate," and an October report which told Stitt many of the state's virus deaths could have been prevented. (The governor's office released a statement dismissing the latter assessment as an "editorial opinion" which they disputed.) 

In the most recent report made publicly available by the state, dated Dec. 6, the task force said Oklahoma was performing worse than other "Heartland" states in mitigating spread of the virus. It ranked Oklahoma third-worst in the nation in terms of test positivity rate and third-worst in the nation in terms of COVID-19 hospital admissions.

"Mitigation efforts must increase," Pence's team told Stitt in that report. 

At a virtual press conference on Tuesday, some medical and health care leaders from the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition said the reports were useful from a public health perspective.

"We always look at all the data we can, and I think the more information you have when you're studying a virus, a novel virus, such as this, it's very helpful," said Dr. Jean Hausheer, leader of the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition COVID-19 Task Force.

"I would like to see it continue to be made public," said Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. "Every bit of information, I think, is great."

Dr. David Kendrick, CEO of MyHealth Access and professor of medical informatics at the OU College of Community Medicine, said seeing the White House reports is an important indicator of what the federal task force knows -- and doesn't know -- about the situation in Oklahoma.

"Especially at the federal level, where most of the funds originate to help states get through this, we need to know they know, right? We need them to be parroting back to us that they understand what's going on in Oklahoma and what our numbers are, so we can be assured to get the resources that we need to address this pandemic," Kendrick said.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

In the state-specific report for New Mexico dated Dec. 20, obtained and published by the Center for Public Integrity, which includes national rankings, the White House said Oklahoma ranked eighth-worst nationally for new cases per 100,000 residents and fifth-worst for COVID hospital admissions. Oklahoma had the highest COVID-19 test positivity rate of all 50 states.

At press time, the most recent daily federal data, dated Dec. 27, showed Oklahoma still ranked first in the nation for test positivity.