Stitt pushes, but doesn’t require, face coverings in COVID-19 hotspots

Gov. Kevin Stitt wants Oklahomans to wear face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19, but he isn’t going to mandate it.

The governor’s Tuesday press conference at Oklahoma State University’s campus wasn’t a platform to announce a statewide make mandate, new requirements for the state’s public schools nor a medical breakthrough.

Stitt’s visit was prompted by a COVID-19 spike in Payne County, with its move from yellow to orange on the State Health Department’s color-coded alert system that followed five-straight days of more than 30 cases a day in Stillwater.

Stitt met with local and OSU officials, bringing with him Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Lance Frye, Secretary of Health Kevin Corbett, state epidemiologist Jared Taylor and Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

“We’re here today to encourage Oklahomans to do everything they can to stop and contain the virus,” Stitt said.

The governor said he wanted hot spots to do better with the “3 Ws” – “wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask.”

The state health department has been strongly encouraging mask use for months, even before it was revealed that the White House COVID-19 task force put Oklahoma in a “red” category and recommended implementing a mask mandate for counties with more than 20 cases and closing bars, among other mitigation measures.

That report was shared with governors’ offices across the country, but didn’t make its way to city leaders until it was published by the Center for Public Integrity. Last week, Stitt made the reports public, and they were OSDH website.

“From the beginning of this pandemic, my pledge to you has been to be transparent with you with all of the data, with the facts and always make decisions based on the data in Oklahoma, not what we see in other states or on television,” Stitt said.

“We have been issuing guidance for Oklahomans in cities and counties with high levels of community spread to wear masks in public. The data shows the cases in those areas have actually gone down once people started wearing masks. Oklahomans, this is what we do, we come together and support our neighbors in times of trouble, whether it’s a tornado, whether it’s a food or fire, Oklahomans always jump in, roll up their sleeves and do what it takes. That’s what we need to do in the fight against this virus.”

According to Stitt, the measures are a matter of personal responsibility, but necessary to keep schools in-person. Stillwater has had a face covering mandate in place since July.

Its public school district, though, had only two days of in-person classes before moving online because of the surge in county cases.

Hofmeister said about 75 percent of Oklahoma Public Schools have opened for full-time in-person instruction, with less than 8 percent opening strictly virtual.

“These are difficult, often gut-wrenching decisions for districts to make,” she said.

“There are many reasons that in-person learning and instruction is so critical for education, not the least of which is the impact of face-to-face instructions with a teacher, the connection, the building of a relationship all moves so much more swiftly when we can be together.”

Other factors, she said, include child nutrition, a break from unstable home environments and the mental health support that schools can provide.

Hofmeister said at least 110 Oklahoma school districts have seen a positive COVID-19 case and most lead to quarantining measures.

“We want to avoid that,” she said. “Masks mitigate spread. It’s that simple. Our kids need schools open and the absolute best way for that to happen, because fewer cases mean fewer quarantined and fewer possibilities of tragedy, is for everyone to wear a mask for their friends, families and neighbors.”

Stitt said decisions on mask mandates for schools, like municipalities, is something that will be determined by each school district.

Stitt said each community has different needs.
“I’ve been very clear that a mask mandate is something we should leave to the local communities. We’ve had 19 or 20 municipalities … have done that. I believe that’s a local control. I’m not going to mandate something statewide where every community is different. We’ve got western Oklahoma communities and counties that haven’t had one case in the last seven days. So, we just believe it’s a local decision, but that’s why we’re here … We think everybody in Stillwater and Payne County needs to take this serious because we want our kids in school.”

• Frye said OSDH is in the process of collecting data that will allow the state to update rapid test results into the active case count. He said they were updating software and running parallel systems, wanting to make sure there is no problem with the data before results are released.
• Oklahoma State University has announced a program to randomly test students on a voluntary basis. An email went out Tuesday to 500 OSU students asking them to schedule an appointment.
• OSU university updated its weekly dashboard for the testing week of Aug 24-30. University Health Services tested 888 people, recorded 121 positive cases and also received 94 self-reported positive cases from people off campus. There are 13 individuals in quarantine housing.

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