White House Document Shows Oklahoma among 18 States in Coronavirus 'Red Zone'

Jul 16, 2020

Portions of this article about the coronavirus red zone were originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests Oklahoma is among 18 states that should go back to more stringent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like limiting gatherings to 10 people, closing bars and gyms, and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The July 14th document was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and said Oklahoma is in the “red zone” for new cases, meaning it had more than 100 per 100,000 people last week, and approaching it for positive test results. That threshold is 10%, and Oklahoma was at 9.7%.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, Okmulgee and Ottawa counties were specifically mentioned as being in the red zone. The City of Tulsa enacted an ordinance Thursday requiring most adults to wear face coverings in many public places.

The document reflects the insistence of the Trump administration that states and counties should take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. The document has been shared within the federal government but does not appear to be posted publicly.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations were mostly good.

“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha said Thursday. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people? This should be published and updated every day.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the task force, referenced an earlier version of what appears to be the same report — which she said was updated weekly and sent to governors — in a press conference July 8 in which Vice President Mike Pence urged local leaders to open schools in the fall. She said Arizona, California, Florida and Texas were among the states the task force was monitoring carefully and that “a series of other states” were also in the red zone and should consider limiting gatherings.

It’s clear some states are not following the task force’s advice. For instance, the document recommends that Georgia, in the red zone for both cases and test positivity, “mandate statewide wearing of cloth face coverings outside the home.” But Gov. Brian Kemp signed an order Wednesday banning localities from requiring masks.

States in the red zone for cases are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

States in the red zone for testing are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended that governments make sure test positivity rates were at 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening. A COVID-19 tracker from Johns Hopkins University shows that 33 states were above that recommended positivity as of July 16.

“If the test positivity rate is above 10%, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by journalists from The Atlantic. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 percent, because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”

The White House and Kemp did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.