Nearly a month after several of Oklahoma’s largest cities implemented mask mandates, epidemiologists and public health experts say they’re hopeful the measures are helping to slow the coronavirus’ spread. 

Oklahoma’s coronavirus outbreak, which so far has killed more than 640 Oklahomans, swelled over recent months as hospitalizations and new daily infections hit record highs in July. Experts and health officials at the time warned the state was on a dangerous path.

But in recent weeks, new cases have started to decline and hospitalizations, albeit at elevated levels compared to early into the pandemic, have appeared to stabilize. Officials this week started to express optimism. 

The state health department reported an average of about 663 new cases per day over the past week on Friday, compared to an Aug. 1 peak of about 1,093.

“Masking is working,” Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said on Twitter on Thursday. 

Oklahoma City’s mask ordinance went into effect on July 17. In Oklahoma County, the seven-day rolling average of daily new infections was at 136 on Thursday, after it peaked at about 213 on July 14, county health data shows.

Gov. Kevin Stitt during a news conference on Thursday said he believed masks were helping the state turn the corner on its outbreak. 

“I would have to dig into the data, but absolutely,” Stitt said in response to a reporter’s question.

“All that stuff goes into the reason we’re seeing a drop across the state — social distancing, the working from home. Just Oklahomans being cautious with how we’re fist bumping and staying socially distanced. I think all of that goes in.”

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

In Tulsa County, where the city of Tulsa implemented a mandate on July 15, new daily cases have been ticking downwards for more than two weeks. The county’s seven-day moving average of new daily infections peaked at 254 in late July and was at 142 on Thursday, data shows. 

A Tulsa Health Department spokeswoman on Thursday said more time was needed to say whether mask mandates were behind the decline. 

Still, there’s growing evidence and consensus among researchers that the widespread wearing of cloth face coverings in public help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Oklahoma’s seven-day rolling average of new daily cases, which de-emphasizes random statistical swings, has been trending downward over the past two weeks, though it’s still at an elevated level compared to earlier on into the pandemic, according to state health data analyzed by The Frontier

Meanwhile, the daily rate at which tests are coming back positive has fallen in the past week, while the number of tests being completed remained steady, the data shows. 

But as in-person learning resumes and some schools reopen, public health experts warn an increase of new infections is likely imminent, and the state shouldn’t rule out more restrictive measures if more outbreaks occur. 

Following record highs in daily new cases in July, about a dozen local city governments across the state implemented face covering requirements, but the governor has resisted issuing a statewide mandate despite calls from local health organizations. 

Instead, Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye on Thursday issued a public health advisory that in part recommended face coverings for those over 11 years old in counties with an elevated rate of new cases. 

Though it’s not time to ease up on measures, the state has the tools to curb the virus’ spread, Frye said. 

“If we use common sense and simple actions, such as wearing face masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing, we can decrease viral spread and keep our schools and economy open and keep Oklahomans safe and healthy,” he said at a news conference in Tulsa. 

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

Aaron Wendelboe, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, agreed mask mandates are likely contributing to the statewide downward trend of new infections. Wendelboe is also the former interim state epidemiologist. 

In addition to mandatory masking, following a surge of new cases after the state reopened in June, Oklahomans naturally fell into a pattern in the way they behaved and interacted with one another, Wendelboe said. That behaviour, such as increased social distancing, contributed to the decline.

But as Oklahomans change their routines and start interacting with more people as in-person schooling and extracurriculars such as sports begin, Wendelboe said he expects transmission of the virus to increase. 

“Once you see that change and that change in behavior, then you’re going to see the increase in cases again,” he said. 

Disease modelers use a figure called the reproduction number, which essentially estimates the average number of people a single person with the virus will infect. If new daily cases are on a downward trend, signaling less community spread, the reproduction number is less than 1. When the reproduction number is at 1, that indicates new cases are growing at a stable rate, and when there’s an accelerated growth of new infections, the reproduction number is greater than 1.

By definition, Oklahoma’s reproduction number is currently less than 1, meaning the rate of transmission has slowed, Wendelboe said. 

Wendelboe said though he’s certain that people wearing face coverings is helping slow the spread, he can’t yet assign a value to how much. However, he said he believes other epidemiologists in the state will soon be able to provide an estimate.  

“If we see an increase in cases, it’s not necessarily because mask mandates failed,” he said. “I believe the evidence is still there that they were helpful in reducing. And even if we see an uptick in cases, it could be a lot worse if we don’t wear masks.”

Though public health measures appear to be helping curb the viral spread, it’s too early for Oklahomans to celebrate, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, head of the University of Oklahoma’s coronavirus response.

“I think we will see some intermittent community outbreaks or school outbreaks with COVID-19. I think it’s almost inevitable.” Bratzler said on Friday.

He added: “I think we need to watch very, very carefully what happens in the state because we may need to rethink some of these policies on reopening if we see some of these outbreaks occur.”