Outbreaks of coronavirus infections at federal and state prisons contributed to local hotspots this week as state and hospital officials outlined a new version of their surge plan amid rising COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The number of people being treated in the hospital for COVID-19 rose to 956 on Thursday, a new pandemic high. Hospitalizations are up 54 percent since Oct. 1, straining staff and forcing hospitals to transfer some non-emergency patients.  

The Oklahoma City region was the first of the state’s eight hospital regions to move to a higher tier under a four-stage hospital surge plan announced on Tuesday. The surge plan, the state’s third version since plans in April and August, now has regional triggers based on the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients to non-COVID patients in intensive care unit beds and medical surgery beds. Each escalating tier triggers actions by hospitals in a region, including staffing changes, patient transfers or limiting scheduled or non-emergency surgeries. (Story continues below)

“Many factors influence our capacity on any given day, including transferring of patient location, non-COVID-19 cases requiring ICU beds and ongoing fluctuations in elective surgeries, making it difficult to consistently reflect our needs,” said Jim Gebhert, CEO of Mercy Health in Oklahoma City. “However, our hospitals are committed to working together and with the state to make sure Oklahomans are taken care of throughout this pandemic.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Health expects each hospital region to designate a regional incident command hospital to implement surge plan changes. To elevate to the next tier, certain percentages must be met for three consecutive days. As of Thursday, seven regions had less than 15% of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU or medical surgery beds. But the Oklahoma City region had 16% to 18% of those types of hospitalizations for three days, putting it into Tier 2.

“They began looking at elective or scheduled procedures that could be pushed out to create more capacity, and they’ll probably bring on more staff,” said Matt Stacy, surge plan advisor for the health department. “They also look at how they spread (COVID) patients evenly amongst that region so that the load of patients is somewhat evenly distributed amongst the resources.”  

Health department officials have repeatedly said they are in a support role when it comes to hospitalizations and COVID-19. A statewide moratorium on elective surgeries early in the pandemic to free up bed capacity was a blunt tool that neither the state nor the hospitals want to see happen again.

“We’ve worked with them very closely throughout each change of the hospital surge plan,” Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said at a news conference on Tuesday. “They’ve been fantastic partners, but we do not manage them. Our hospitals are the experts in managing patient care and capacity, and they will continue to apply their expertise as they always do to continue to manage capacity levels and ensure patients get the treatment that they need.”

The total number of Oklahomans infected with coronavirus hit 113,856 on Friday and the number of active cases rose to a new high at 15,132. To date, 1,234 Oklahomans have died from COVID-19, the health department said.

In the past week, the biggest increases in active cases came in ZIP codes for Boley, El Reno and Sayre. There are state prisons in Boley and Sayre with outbreaks of coronavirus, as well as at a federal correctional facility in El Reno. Other weekly increases came from community spread in ZIP codes in Okmulgee, Ada and Duncan.

Meanwhile, ZIP codes in Yukon, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma City and Edmond had the top numbers of active cases as of Friday, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of health department data.

The latest White House coronavirus report, dated Oct. 18, for the first time recommended public and private gatherings be as small as possible in counties with elevated levels of cases and test positivity. The White House put 53 Oklahoma counties in those red and orange categories.

“Mitigation efforts must be strengthened, especially in areas with increasing cases and test positivity and new admissions,” the report said. “These should include mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene, avoiding crowds in public and social gatherings in private, and ensuring flu immunizations.”  

On Friday, Gov. Kevin Stitt renewed and amended the state’s coronavirus executive order, first issued March 15. The latest version updates hospital and testing reporting requirements and changes the governor’s situation summary to weekdays from daily reports.  

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.