Gov. Kevin Stitt said Friday that despite climbing COVID-19 numbers in Oklahoma amid spread of the more-transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, he has no plans to declare a public health emergency, one of the necessary steps under a new state law that would allow schools to require students wear masks upon their return to the classroom next month.
"This is about personal responsibility, this is about freedoms," Stitt said, echoing the messaging he has leaned on throughout the pandemic.
"Nothing in the legislation last year prevents a parent from sending their child to school with a mask on, or prevents anyone from having their child under 12 get vaccinated. The difference is we're not going to mandate that somebody else has to send their 4-year-old to school with a mask," Stitt said.
Senate Bill 658, which Stitt signed into law in May, prohibits public school districts from implementing mask requirements unless, at minimum, a governor-declared state of emergency is in effect in their area.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released guidance this week that schools require universal masking for all children 2 and older.
"AAP recommends universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated," the pediatricians' group said. "Many schools will not have a system to monitor vaccine status of students, teachers and staff, and some communities overall have low vaccination uptake where the virus may be circulating more prominently."
The Oklahoma chapter of the AAP said they agreed with the guidance.
Public Radio Tulsa asked Stitt at a Tulsa press conference Friday if he was bothered by Oklahoma's ranking among the bottom ten states nationally for percent of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. "Well, I disagree with your terminology," Stitt said, despite the fact that Oklahoma has placed near the bottom of national rankings for vaccinations for months according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranking 41st at the time the question was asked.
"Like I said, over 85% of Oklahomans 65 and plus have been vaccinated," Stitt continued. "Vaccines have been available widely for anybody that wants one in all 77 counties for months and months and months now. We led the country in getting those vaccines out. We were top ten in getting those vaccines before everyone."
Oklahoma did have a robust and superlative start to its vaccination campaign -- with Tribes' federal allocations of doses also contributing -- but state health department data show administration of the vaccines has dropped off precipitously since then.
Stitt said he encouraged Oklahomans to get vaccinated, if they so choose after consultation with their health care providers.
"I got vaccinated 116 days ago, I think, today," Stitt said. "I don't know if you remember seeing 'the gun show' when I got vaccinated, but I was leading by example. And now vaccines are available for all Oklahomans. Around 95% of those that are hospitalized nationally are from the unvaccinated."
"I trust Oklahomans. We're going to continue to provide information and be transparent with all of our data, and I encourage Oklahomans to make that decision about their health care with their physicians and their doctors," Stitt said.