Gov. Kevin Stitt wears a mask after holding a news conference at the state Capitol on June 30, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

As the number of new coronavirus cases has reached record highs in recent weeks, Gov. Kevin Stitt and health officials have continued to stress that hospitalization levels remain “manageable.”

Stitt, who for the first time wore a face mask while speaking at the state Capitol on Tuesday, said the number of people being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals has remained “pretty much flat” since the state started to reopen in late April.

“This is about hospital capacity,” he said at a news conference. “The goal was never to have zero cases in the state of Oklahoma.”

The number of cases in the state has continued to surge in the month of June, which saw some of the biggest single-day increases yet. Oklahoma hit another high Tuesday with 585 new confirmed cases, bringing the total to 13,757.

On Tuesday, the state reported 374 Oklahomans were hospitalized. The number has been trending quickly upward, up nearly 90 percent compared to June 19 when there were 197 hospitalizations.

At its highest, the state reported 562 hospitalizations on March 31. But some experts have argued earlier numbers were inflated by suspected cases of COVID-19 when testing was less available.

Stitt has continued to tout Oklahoma’s hospital capacity, saying the state’s surge plan has the capacity of 5,000 beds.

Statewide, there were 3,455 beds available as of Monday, including 265 adult ICU beds, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Commissioner of Health Lance Frye, M.D., listens to the governor speak at the state Capitol on June 30, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Oklahoma Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye, who also appeared at Tuesday’s news conference wearing a mask for the first time, said hospitalizations remain “manageable” and are “not growing at the same level” the state reported in the spring. Coronavirus deaths are also “comparatively lower,” he said.

However, Frye acknowledged the state reported the largest increase in cases Tuesday since the pandemic arrived.

“Today’s increase will not be the last one we expect to see over the next several days,” he said.

While explaining the increase of cases, Frye said in June about 40 percent of new cases were under the age of 35. Those people are at low risk for severe complications or death, he said, but they can spread the disease to vulnerable people, such as those with underlying health conditions and those over 65.

“Young people need to be very careful since they could be carriers and not symptomatic,” Frye said.

The state has seen an increase of cases from indoor gatherings such as weddings and funerals, he said. Frye also pointed to a “record interest” in testing. As of Monday, Oklahoma has completed 343,623 tests, for a positive rate of 4.4 percent.

“I want to clearly communicate today that our hospital infrastructure remains strong,” Frye said.

Some hospital systems and local health officials have reported record highs in coronavirus hospitalizations over the last week.

On Thursday, INTEGRIS Health, which operates hospitals across the state, said it has seen a “significant” increase of new coronavirus patients over the last couple of weeks.

The hospital system had 62 confirmed patients with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, a spokeswoman told The Frontier in an email.

In comparison, the highest number of coronavirus patients INTEGRIS saw during March was 37 patients, INTEGRIS said in a news release Thursday.

“While we aren’t seeing the alarming numbers like our cohorts in Texas, Arizona and Florida, we are moving in the wrong direction,” said Dr. David Chansolme, the medical director of infection prevention at INTEGRIS Health, in the release. 

Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart last week said that Tulsa County had seen a spike in hospitalizations and that it was important Oklahomans remain vigilant to again slow the spread of the disease.

“While hospitalization numbers are at an all-time high for COVID-19, we are not close to overwhelming our health care system, but we want to stay that way,” he said.

LaWanna Halstead, vice president of quality & clinical initiatives for the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said although hospitals are seeing a spike in patients, facilities are “much more efficient” at treating patients than they were early on into the pandemic. Hospitals feel more prepared to care for coronavirus patients, she said. 

“From what I’m hearing from hospitals, they’re not at the stress level at this time,” Halstead said in an interview with The Frontier last week.

But the association was concerned about the upward trend, Halstead said, and that hospitals and state officials were keeping an eye on capacity levels.

Though the governor on Tuesday said he recommends people wear a mask in public where social distancing is not possible, he was firm that he would not consider mandating their use.

“We believe in freedom. I will not mandate that in the state of Oklahoma,” Stitt said.

But Stitt reiterated that he wants to continue to get Oklahomans’ lives “back to normal.”

“We don’t want to see spikes, so whatever we can do as a state to slow the spread, we want to do it.” he said.

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Oklahoma has 13,757 known coronavirus cases and 387 reported deaths.