Ken Miller, The Associated Press (The City Sentinel)
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An emergency rule by Gov. Kevin Stitt allows Oklahoma hospitals to renovate conference rooms and other areas to care for COVID-19 patients, the state’s health commissioner said Friday (August 13).
The rule is not an emergency declaration, which would allow state schools to implement mask mandates, said Dr. Lance Frye, adding he is not convinced one is needed.
“We strictly looked at what do we need to respond (to the virus surge) and is there anything that was … accomplished before in our emergency declaration that we can’t do now,” Frye said.
“We are good where we are right now as far as our ability to respond” to the surge that Frye said would be slowed with vaccinations.
Unvaccinated patients make up 98% of new cases and 93% of hospitalizations in the state, Frye said.
The state health department reported 2,814 new virus cases Friday and a seven-day average of 2,122 new cases daily, up from 1,268 on July 28, and 1,326 virus-related hospitalizations.
Oklahoma’s vaccination rate reached 50% of residents with one dose, according to deputy health commissioner Keith Reed, and 41.1% fully vaccinated, compared to national rates of 58.2% with one dose and 49.9% fully vaccinated.
Frye declined comment on decisions by the Oklahoma City and Santa Fe South charter school districts this week to require students and staff to wear masks, with opt-out provisions for religious, medical or approved personal objection reasons.
The Oklahoma City district will also pay a $1,000 stipend to employees with proof of being fully vaccinated by Nov. 15.
Oklahoma City Superintendent Sean McDaniel said he issued the requirement days after Monday’s start of school because virus cases jumped from four the first day of classes to 119 on Thursday.
McDaniel said he does not believe the requirement violates a state law banning school mask mandates because he, not the school board, issued the directive.
“I think I’m actually upholding the law by taking this route, because (the law) is specific to school boards,” McDaniel said. “I believe that we have stayed within, certainly the spirit of the law and I believe also the letter of the law.”
McDaniel said he has not discussed the matter with Stitt, a Republican who issued a statement supporting the district and Santa Fe South, which adopted a similar mask requirement on Wednesday that includes opt-out provisions.
“I appreciate that school districts like Santa Fe Charter Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools are respecting parents’ rights to decide what is best for the health of their children and opt out of mask requirements if they choose,” Stitt said.
Masks will be required except for those who submit religious, medical or approved personal objections to mask wearing, McDaniel said.
“We know that kids, teachers, families have things that are going on their lives that might prohibit them from wearing a mask,” McDaniel said, citing potential health or religious exemptions.
McDaniel said he could not cite a personal objection that would be approved, but that each would be considered on a case by case basis by the district’s human resources department.
Defiance to anti-mask laws is popping up in other red states that have imposed such bans, particularly in blue-leaning urban areas, including Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Broward County, Florida.
Oklahoma City and Santa Fe South are the only two of Oklahoma’s 546 districts known to have adopted any form of mask requirement, according to Oklahoma State Department of Education spokeswoman Carrie Burkhart.
A lawsuit filed Thursday challenges Oklahoma’s mask requirement ban and the Tulsa school board has agreed to allow its attorneys to join in any such lawsuit, although court records do not show they have done so.