Oklahoma set a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations last week, and the United States reached a grim milestone of more than 250,000 coronavirus deaths. After earlier surges in the spring and summer, the country is now in the midst of the feared fall coronavirus surge and we’re peering into the darkness that winter will bring. With more than 1,500 Oklahomans now hospitalized and new positive cases averaging more than 2,600 per day, it’s time for Oklahoma to act.
On Nov. 17 and 18, Oklahoma reported COVID-19 daily records for hospitalizations, ICU patients and deaths. On average, 20% of Oklahoma’s hospital beds are filled with those battling COVID-19; ICU bed availability has dropped to between 5% and 7%. Increases in the number of active cases come as many hospitals and their staff, especially those in rural Oklahoma, are being pushed to their limits — physically and emotionally. While it’s true that more testing reveals more cases, the number of hospitalizations gives Oklahomans an objective measure of rampant community spread of the virus.
As deaths rise this winter, Oklahoma’s leaders will need to implement steps to slow the spread of COVID. Leaders — from Congress to mayors — show no support for total lockdowns or stay-at-home orders. But science shows that there are other temporary measures available to keep our communities safe, save lives and ensure Oklahoma flattens the curve.
While inconvenient, masks help mitigate spread. Masks allow Oklahoma to preserve health care capacity, help keep schools open and ensure businesses continue to create prosperity for our communities. Simply put, everyone wearing a mask in public will reduce spread of the coronavirus and save lives. As of Nov. 18, 36 states had implemented mask mandates. From Oklahoma’s neighbors like Kansas and Texas to states like North Carolina and Alabama, the enforcement of mask mandates varies from state to state, and even community to community based on individual need. As Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “States should be able to choose how to enforce a mandate, but the goal should be to make masks a social and cultural norm, not a political statement.”
Another measure of intervention Oklahoma must consider is limiting crowded settings. According to researchers at Stanford University, most COVID-19 transmissions occur at full-service restaurants, grocery stores, gyms, cafes and other “superspreader sites.” Capping indoor capacity between 20% and 50% could decrease new infections by as much as 80% — a public health intervention that will be important to focus on as activities move indoors for the winter months. No business leader or public official recommends shutting down our economy, but we do believe in following the science and proper recommended interventions of doctors and epidemiologists.
During the summer, we were warned by public health officials about the dangers winter would bring. With infections and hospitalizations rising, and a vaccine not likely being widely available until next year, Oklahoma must act quickly with the resources we have available now. Wearing a mask and limiting crowd capacity will be a temporary inconvenience for many of us but could have lifesaving results for our neighbors. While many who become infected with the coronavirus will survive, we must have compassion for Oklahoma’s elderly and infirm. Over time, with a vaccine, COVID-19 will become a manageable risk and we will once again be able to celebrate all of life’s milestones and occasions with our families and friends.
Lucas, R-Cheyenne, represents Oklahoma’s 3rd Congressional District.