Gov. Kevin Stitt has complained to multiple hospital leaders about their employees — doctors and nurses — giving interviews with media outlets on the challenging conditions they face as the state continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to multiple sources with health care facilities and the governor’s office.
Last month, a frustrated Stitt called Jim Gebhart, president of Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, about recent news reports featuring doctors at the hospital, according to two senior staff members at Mercy who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the phone call.
On that call Stitt said if doctors didn’t stop “fearmongering” about capacity issues it could force him to impose a ban on elective surgeries, which would be a financial hardship for many hospitals.
In an emailed statement, Mercy said its leaders have been in constant contact with state officials since the beginning of the pandemic in an effort to manage bed availability.
“We believe that everyone is doing what they think is best for Oklahomans,” the statement said. “Mercy is singularly focused on doing what is best for our patients, finding relief for our overwhelmed co-workers, and educating our community on preventing the spread of COVID-19 so we can reduce the strain on all Oklahoma hospitals.”
Stitt has made similar contact with other hospital leaders, according to a source in the governor’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.
Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, told The Frontier she has heard from hospital leaders who have been contacted by the governor or his staff upset over recent media reports.
“It’s been a balancing act,” said Davis, referring to hospitals wanting the public to know they will still treat them but that capacity limits are real.
The governor has acknowledged the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic but has highlighted Oklahoma as the victim of a global crisis and recently told KRMG radio there are “a lot of folks that are fearmongering” about hospitals being at capacity.
Last month, the governor’s chief of staff criticized local journalists for being “eager to hype the COVID numbers,” which show positive tests and hospitalizations are at all-time highs.
Charlie Hannema, a spokesperson for Stitt, said the governor’s frustration has been that hospital employees have reported capacity issues in the media that did not match the information provided to the state.
“We do not believe this was intentional, but rather a representation of the complex and constantly changing data related to hospital staff and availability,” Hannema said in an emailed statement. “The consistency of information has improved greatly over the past few weeks as hospital leaders are collaborating with their peers and the State at unprecedented levels.”
Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said the state Department of Health receives a daily report on hospital capacity that the governor has access to.
“But they are not sharing all that information with the public, they are not sharing how many beds are available in each region,” Monks said.
Monks said capacity issues constantly change and while there may be available beds in the state that doesn’t mean every hospital has staffed beds.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and hospitals face challenging conditions, some Oklahoma health care workers have given interviews with local and national news outlets, at times criticizing the state government’s response and warning of hospitals nearing capacity limits.
Last month, ABC News reported from Comanche Hospital in Lawton, showing scenes of an overrun hospital.
Recently, Mercy Hospital shared video with KOCO News of its packed COVID-19 unit.
“Back in April, we just had one hallway on the floor that had COVID patients,” Dr. Lirin Jacob said in the video. “Now, we have four hallways’ worth of patients who have COVID, and that’s not even including ICU patients.”
Stitt has publically mentioned an elective surgery ban as a possible response to rising COVID-19 cases, a step he took earlier this year year.
Stitt issued a ban on elective surgeries in the early weeks of the pandemic but told health care leaders at the time he did not realize how many procedures his order restricted, according to recorded phone calls previously reported on by The Frontier.
“He says that’s the only thing left to do but there are many other steps to take before that,” Monks said.
Monks’ organizations and several other state medical associations have submitted letters in recent months urging the governor to enact a statewide mask mandate, modify the state’s COVID-19 risk map and make local and regional hospital capacity data public, according to copies of the letters obtained by The Frontier.
“There is a big fear that the governor will pull the lever on an elective surgery ban,” Monks said.
Davis said her organization has also urged the governor to avoid a statewide ban on elective surgeries.
“Enough health care leaders have talked to the governor’s staff to say let us manage this, we know how to do this,” Davis said. “I am aware of hospitals where procedures have been cut back and they are doing all they can to create more health care capacity without a statewide ban.”
Hannema, Stitt’s spokesperson, said an elective surgery ban was not a likely step in the near future.
“The governor has mentioned the possibility of limiting elective surgeries to free up hospital capacity, but has also had many conversations with doctors and hospital leaders regarding the overall impacts of such action and it has not been actively considered for some time,” Hannema told The Frontier.
While the governor has not adopted the suggestions made in the letters, Monks said he is hopeful the state will listen closely to health leaders across the state.
“I believe the governor really cares about the people of Oklahoma and that he wants to save lives,” Monks said. “The problem is we just have a different option on how to get from point a to point b and that’s why it has been so frustrating. Our mission is really the same, so I don’t understand why we couldn’t be working closer together.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: A Response from the governor’s office was received as this story was originally published. This article has been updated with that response.