Oklahoma Watch
Monday, Aug. 23, 2021
Capitol Watch

As Oklahoma’s COVID-19 Cases Continue to Surge, Political Tensions Also Rise

Gov. Kevin Stitt talks to Dillard’s CEO Bill Dillard II, right, and Dillard’s Vice President Bill Dillard III, left, while touring the store at Penn Square Mall on May 8, 2020. Stitt did not wear a mask while at the store. All store employees and executives wore masks during Stitt’s visit. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

By Trevor Brown | Capitol/Investigative Reporter

If you are getting some strong “Groundhog Day” vibes lately, you are not alone.

Once again, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Oklahoma as hospital officials say they are facing a “dire situation” with mounting hospitalizations among the unvaccinated.

And, once again, elected officials are feuding over masks and how to handle the the latest wave of the pandemic.

The focal point of the debate this time is over Senate Bill 658, which blocked school districts from mandating masks or vaccines in schools. And as student began returning to school this month, the rhetoric has only heated up.

On Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a press release accusing Hulbert Public Schools, a small eastern Oklahoma school district, of violating the new state law after it passed a motion requiring students, teachers and staff to wear masks.

“It is disappointing that one school district has chosen to openly violate a state law that was supported by 80% of the Legislature,” Stitt said in the statement.

Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, fired back with his own statement a short bit later that day.

“The Governor has a platform to reach Oklahomans across the state,” he said. “Instead of using it to plead with Oklahomans to get vaccinated, he has instead chosen to ‘slam’ a duly elected school board for taking action to protect their students and staff in the face of a deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of more than 7,600 Oklahomans.”

“The greatest asset COVID has in Oklahoma is not misinformation, it’s Governor Kevin Stitt,” Nichols added.

The debate then shifted over to Twitter, where Stitt’s spokeswoman, Carly Atchison, posted “state lawmaker encourages breaking state law” under Nichols’ statement. The two exchanged a few more tweets in a usually heated back-and-forth between a lawmaker and the governor’s communication director.

Meanwhile, on top of all of this, President Joe Biden said last week said that he directed the U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to take legal action “if appropriate,” against states that have blocked universal mask mandates in schools.

What do you think? Should Oklahoma re-evaluate its newly passed law in light of the recent surge of COVID-19 cases. Or if you have questions that you want answered about the new law, email me at tbrown@oklahomawatch.org or find me on Twitter at @tbrownokc.

The Top Story

Paula Smith, a therapeutic and certified medical aide at the Fort Sill Veterans Center in Lawton, received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 9, 2021. Smith was one of 20 employees at the facility who opted to get the vaccine during the center’s first clinic. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Only Half of Oklahoma’s Nursing Home Workers Are Vaccinated. Now Biden Is Mandating It.

Nursing homes in Oklahoma and across the nation are in danger of losing staff or funding following pressure from the Biden administration spurred by a resurgence of COVID-19.

Oklahoma Watch’s Whitney Bryen reports that nursing homes that refuse to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their staff will lose Medicare and Medicaid funding. 

That policy is already making waves among some lawmakers. Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, sent a press release Thursday asking the state’s attorney general to review the constitutional authority of the order. [Read More …]

Tweet Watch

There is going to be a new leader of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority.

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced last week that he’s appointing Adria Berry, who most recently was a senior vice president with the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, to lead the state agency.

But the Tulsa World’s Samantha Vicent noted on Twitter, Berry has publicly called State Question 788, which was approved by voters in 2018 to allow the state to offer medical marijuana licenses, “problematic for many reasons.”

Vicent went on to post that Berry suggested that some of the problems could be fixed by lawmakers restricting medical cards to patients with specific medical conditions – something that many medical marijuana advocates opposes.

You can read more from the Tulsa World here.

What I’m Reading This Week

  • Experts began warning of dire consequences soon after the pandemic arrived: Mental health crises would escalate. Suicides would rise. In Oklahoma, those predictions came true. Last year, 883 Oklahomans died by suicide, according to data provided by the state medical examiner’s office. [Oklahoma Watch]
  • The picture Hillcrest Hospital South Intensive Care Unit’s medical director painted of his unit under the ongoing onslaught of COVID-19’s delta variant was grim: Almost all of the patients he sees are unvaccinated, and given delta’s reach to younger populations, its victims are more often leaving behind spouses, children and decades of life unlived. [Tulsa World]
  • Blood donations are once again needed as supply is forecasted to drop due to the rise in COVID. [Public Radio Tulsa]
  • With COVID-19 case numbers continuing to climb, back to school has meant a quick return to distance learning mode or quarantine for students and employees at a host of schools across Oklahoma. [Tulsa World]
  • 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. [The Associated Press]

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