Gov. Kevin Stitt and health officials’ message on Tuesday emphasized an upcoming coronavirus vaccine and Oklahomans practicing “personal responsibility” as a way to curb the spread of the pandemic.

However, experts, though optimistic, say a vaccine likely will not be widely distributed until next year, leaving Oklahomans to go it alone for the next several months with cases surging statewide.

Stitt, flanked by medical doctors, did not issue new restrictions aimed to slow the spread of the coronavirus but pleaded with Oklahomans to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing.

“If you’ve taken your foot off the gas, I’m asking you to tighten things up. Keep doing your part. We need it more than ever right now,” Stitt said during a news conference outside of the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City on Tuesday. 

Despite calls from city and state leaders for a statewide mask mandate, the governor said he would not issue one. Stitt, who has continued to push for “personal responsibility” has said multiple times throughout the pandemic that a mandate isn’t right for Oklahomans and he would leave that decision up to local governments. 

The news conference came as Oklahoma has continued to break records for COVID-19 case growth and hospitalizations, which have hovered around 1,000 patients for the last week, state health data shows. The pandemic has killed at least 1,451 Oklahomans. 

Tulsa ran out of ICU beds for a few hours on Monday night.

Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye also urged Oklahomans to “do their part” by wearing a mask and taking other preventative measures. But he expressed optimism about a potential vaccine and estimated one would be available by early December. 

“It’s exciting to know a vaccine is on the way, but it’s not an immediate fix,” Frye said at Tuesday’s news conference.

Oklahomans need to do their part until the vaccine arrives, Stitt said. 

“The good news is that day is coming really, really soon,” he said. 

Oklahoma’s vaccine distribution plan calls for long-term care employees to receive vaccinations first, followed by health care workers in hospitals that care directly for COVID-19 patients. 

Pfizer announced on Monday that its experimental COVID-19 vaccine appeared to be working and that it could prevent more than 90 percent of infections. Though early data is promising, many questions remain

The federal government hasn’t deemed a vaccine worthy of widespread distribution, and Pfizer has yet to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration. 

When a vaccine is approved, the first batch will be limited, said Erin Sorrell, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

The Pfizer vaccine would be administered in two doses taken 28 days apart. Then it could take four to six weeks for someone to be fully protected.

It’s likely the general public won’t have access to the vaccine for several months after its approval, Sorrell said. 

“Oklahoma is one state where cases are surging,” Sorrell said in an email to The Frontier. “Hospitals are reaching max capacity. Now is the time to be proactive and take as many approaches as possible to protect public health. It is critical that all states require facemasks and social distancing to protect their residents.”

Meagan Fitzpatrick is an infectious-disease transmission modeler at University of Maryland School of Medicine. She agreed that a vaccine wouldn’t be available for several more months and advised leaders not wait for a vaccine to get the pandemic under control.

“It’s best if we think about a vaccine as something that will help us deliver the final blow to COVID in concert with everything else we can do,” Fitzpatrick said.

Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, praised the governor’s message, but cautioned that an upcoming vaccine wouldn’t “save the lives of those who are seriously ill right now.”

“Nor will it prevent future infections as we move into the holiday season,” Monks said in an emailed statement. “This is not fearmongering or scaring Oklahomans—this is reflecting the reality we currently face and a plea on behalf of our physician members, many of whom are at the forefront of this battle, asking our state and municipal leaders to take action that curbs this intensifying health crisis.”

Renewed calls for a mask mandate

In Tulsa, the city council passed a mask ordinance on July 15. But most of the communities surrounding Tulsa haven’t, and it shows, Mayor G.T. Bynum said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. 

Downtown Tulsa, as seen from The Gathering Place. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Since September, about 61 percent of COVID-19 patients being treated in Tulsa hospitals come from cities without mask mandates, Bynum said. 

“If people have a really great policy reason for not having a mask ordinance or an order in place, I’m all ears,” he said. “I just haven’t heard it yet. The only response I’ve heard is that it’s really hard politically, and that’s not a good answer when lives are at stake.”

During a news conference outside the state Capitol on Tuesday morning, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin once again called for Stitt to enact a statewide mask mandate. She was critical of the governor, saying he had failed to enact restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

“There’ve been more than 1,400 COVID deaths in Oklahoma, and the governor has not come up with a single plan to keep that number from getting to 2,000. This is a total failure in leadership,” she said.

Virgin also called on lawmakers to enter a special session, in part to address the issue of a mask order if Stitt failed to issue one himself. 

The state Capitol behind trees at the Oklahoma History Center. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

More than 30 state governments have issued some type of mask order, according to a review by AARP. 

In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, issued an emergency order on Sunday night requiring people to wear face coverings. The order came as the state recorded more than 2,000 daily new cases and hospitals were at capacity. 

There are no plans for a special session, said Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

Treat said masks are effective and Oklahomans should wear one “when it is appropriate” but did not believe a statewide order was proper. 

“Local governments are best suited to decide whether and when to implement a mask mandate and local officials should consider taking that step if the health care situation in their community warrants it,” Treat said in an emailed statement.