Coronavirus infections at prisons in Vinita and McAlester pushed those areas into the top hotspots of the week in Oklahoma.

Other large increases in active coronavirus cases came in Chickasha, Alva and several ZIP codes in the Oklahoma City area, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Alva is home to Bill Johnson Correctional Center, which reported 52 inmates and two staff members with coronavirus infections on Friday.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, at a Capitol press conference on Thursday, said Oklahoma was among the first states to stop prison visits in the early months of the pandemic. But in recent weeks, cases at prisons across the state have exploded, with almost 900 inmates and 57 staff members with positive cases by Friday.

The latest prison hotspots are at the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vinita, with 295 cases, and Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester, which had 114 cases on Friday.

“That’s the unfortunate thing with this virus. It’s hard to stamp out completely,” said Stitt, who pledged to hold a future briefing on the situation with prison leaders. (story continues below)

On Friday, the Department of Corrections said it would deploy “rapid response teams” to prison hotspots. The prison system has had five inmate deaths related to COVID-19. At least two staff members have died from COVID-19, The Frontier reported Friday

To date, Oklahoma has recorded more than 74,500 cases of coronavirus along with a death toll of 939. The state had an all-time high of active cases — 10,493 — on Friday. An active case is someone who has tested positive in the past 14 days, has not died from COVID-19 or is getting treated in the hospital. 

Eleven more counties were added to the orange category of the state’s coronavirus alert map on Friday. That brings to 56 the number of counties in that “moderate risk” category. The rest of the state’s counties are the “low-risk,” or yellow, category.

At the press conference, Stitt defended the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic after the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report showed Oklahoma among the nation’s top five states for test positivity. The report said Oklahoma had a weekly positivity rate of 10%. Stitt said a more consistent positivity rate was calculated by Johns Hopkins University and showed the state at about 7%.

“That’s the positivity rate we track, and we’re nowhere close to them,” Stitt said.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients remained high but have been between 500 and 600 per day for the last several weeks across the state. Public health officials said patients are spending less time in the hospital on average than they were in the first few months of the pandemic’s appearance in Oklahoma. That’s likely due to a better understanding of treatment options and promising antiviral drugs like Remdesivir, which the Food and Drug Administration placed into an emergency use authorization category to treat COVID-19 in May.

“The reason for this emergency use authorization was because it showed that recovery can actually be 11 days for patients who receive Remdesivir versus 15 days for patients who don’t,” said Dr. Mousumi Som, chief of staff at Oklahoma State University Medical Center in Tulsa. “So that’s a big thing when a patient is suffering from COVID-19.”

The federal government has allocated Remdesivir by state and has shipped more than 1,300 cases so far to Oklahoma hospitals. Each case has 40 vials of the drug.

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org.

Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 


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Paul Monies

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.