Oklahoma medical experts tackle state’s ‘mixed messages’ on coronavirus

Members of the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition want to communicate with the public directly on hospital and ICU capacity, worker shortages and more

  • Catherine Sweeney

Expressing concerns that the state’s pandemic response has been fraught with mixed messaging, some of Oklahoma’s top medical professionals are addressing the public themselves.

Earlier this year, they formed the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition. It includes advocates for the state’s medical workers, hospital administrators, epidemiologists and others who are parting from the rosy picture officials have painted up until this point.

They held a briefing on Tuesday, in which several members contradicted communications coming out of the governor’s office and from state health officials. Hospital capacity is spent, they said. So is the work force. Some recommended statewide mask mandates and criticized the state’s decision to restrict business hours instead. But the overarching theme of the briefing was that Oklahoma has been getting ineffective mixed messaging and needs to hear from doctors and health professionals themselves.

Dr. Jean Hausheer is the former president of the state medical association and the coalition’s coronavirus lead. On Tuesday, she said that the group needed to level the playing field in coronavirus communication.

“We’re going to be speaking for ourselves, directly to the public,” she said.

One of the top concerns has been the state’s insistence that hospital capacity is not under threat. Oklahoma’s coronavirus hospitalizations have been growing consistently for months, breaking records nearly every day. ICU vacancy rates have been in the single digits. But as recently as a couple of weeks ago, state health officials accused critics of fearmongering about hospital shortages. One accused hospitals of using scare tactics against Oklahomans.

Comanche County Memorial Hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Scott Michener, has been ringing alarm bells. His hospital in Lawton is seeing its ICU hit 120 percent of capacity. That means spillover into other departments, such as the emergency department, and wait lists. He said that Comanche Memorial’s experience is not unique; hospitals across the state are seeing the same problems.

“There’s only so much staff that we have, and so manby beds that we have, and we can’t do more than that,” he said. “And we’ve been screaming that. We’ve been screaming that for days on end. And so now, what’s going to keep us from being El Paso? What’s going to keep us from being New York? A lot of us don’t see anything that’s going to keep us from that.”

He criticized state officials, and Gov. Kevin Stitt specifically, for misunderstanding the terminology about bed shortages. A bed with no staff to treat the patient in it is rendered useless.

“There’s a big disconnect between what the governor sees as a bed and what is really a bed,” he said. “It’s easy to say you can wheel a bed in a room… You can’t create an ICU nurse. You can’t create a respiratory therapist.”

Oklahoma Nurses Association CEO Jane Nelson also criticized the state’s response to health worker shortages. She said that because Oklahoma has to compete with other states for nurses, she and other professionals have asked state officials to use federal coronavirus relief funding to recruit. She hasn’t heard back, she said.

She also criticized the state for its proposal to allow coronavirus-infected physicians, nurses and staff to continue working if asymptomatic.

“It is a mixed message to the public to allow asymptomatic COVID-positive nurses, physicians and other health care workers to work,” she said. “They need to be home quarantining like the rest of the public.”

Dr. George Monks, the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, has been calling for a statewide mask mandate for weeks. Of all coronavirus precaution and control measures, he said, that is one with the least fallout.

“That’s the low-hanging fruit,” he said.

He said it was confusing that the state instead chose to restrict business. This month, Stitt and the department of health announced it would require bars and restaurants to close their indoor services by 11 p.m. every night. Monks said that decisions like that affect people’s livelihoods, whereas a mask mandate won’t.

Some of their messaging did align with state officials’. They recommended Oklahomans continue practicing the three main measures: washing hands, social distancing, and wearing a mask. They said it was critical to get vaccinated, for the flu now and for the coronavirus when it’s available. Like Oklahoma’s metro mayors, former state epidemiologist Aaron Wendelboe recommended cutting down on eating indoors and visiting enclosed spaces as much as possible.

Hausheer said this won’t be the group’s last briefing.

“You have our word,” she said. “We will be here, and we are not leaving you.”