As Gov. Kevin Stitt has been largely silent about Oklahoma’s continuing surge in COVID-19 cases, hospital leaders in Oklahoma City held a press conference Tuesday pleading with the public to get vaccinated and calling on state leaders to more forcefully promote strategies aimed at reducing the spread of a virus that continues to significantly challenge health care facilities.
With less than half of all Oklahomans fully vaccinated against COVID, hospitals are dealing with a number of patients not seen since January.
“The only two interventions that might make a difference right now is get vaccinated and wear a mask any time you have a chance,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler with OU Health, speaking with The Frontier in an interview after the press conference. “I’m just asking for leaders to step up and to emulate that, show that, be role models to the community.”
Last year, as the winter surge was filling Oklahoma hospitals, Gov. Kevin Stitt regularly joined health care leaders at media events to urge mask wearing and social distancing.
But Stitt, who spent Tuesday traveling to Ponca City to “give an update on the things we are doing to make Oklahoma a Top Ten state,” has not publicly addressed Oklahoma’s growing COVID crisis in several weeks.
On Monday, Stitt released a video criticizing President Biden’s policies in Afghanistan, calling it unfair to the 49 military members from Oklahoma who died during the two decade-long war.
As of Tuesday, 8,902 Oklahomans had died of COVID-19, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment last week concerning his silence on COVID.
When asked by The Frontier on Tuesday whether Stitt is concerned about hospital capacity issues and what he is doing to support hospitals, the governor’s office declined to answer the questions directly. Instead, a spokeswoman emailed a statement saying the governor thanks doctors and nurses for their work, and that he will “continue to work with the Health Department to make sure everything is being done to help get Oklahomans through this time.”
The calls for mask wearing and improved vaccination rates from health care workers come at a time when hospitals are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and have been stretched beyond their limits, leaders of some of the state’s largest health systems said during their news conference Tuesday.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Oklahoma has rapidly increased as the contagious delta variant takes hold, mainly among unvaccinated people. At the same time, hospitals have lower staffing levels than they did a year ago, hospital leaders said.
On several days over the past few weeks, Oklahoma City hospitals haven’t had a single bed available, said Dr. Bahar Malakouti, neurohospitalist and stroke medical director at Mercy Hospital. More than 90 percent of patients treated for COVID-19 over the last month were unvaccinated.
Patients crowd emergency rooms waiting for beds to become available while their conditions deteriorate, she said.
“If you get in a car accident or have a heart attack, need an emergency surgery or yes, even if you have a stroke, there's a chance you might not be able to get the time sensitive care you need,” Malakouti said.
People might have to wait longer for an ambulance because even ambulance workers are overwhelmed with patients, she said. When ambulance workers do pick up a patient they often struggle to find an emergency room to transport them to, as they’re filled to capacity.
Though the hospital system used to accept almost all patient transfer requests from other hospitals, Mercy frequently must reject them now, Malakouti said. The hospital system isn’t dealing with a staffing shortage — it’s routinely out of physical beds, she said.
“We simply cannot provide the same level of care for our patients, and their outcomes are suffering,” Malakouti said. “This results in real life, long-term consequences for those patients, for their families and for our community at large.
“Some of these patients may die or they may have permanent disabilities for the rest of their lives.”
She added: “All our resources are stretched beyond our limits.”
Hospitals are struggling to meet the staffing levels needed to handle the rising hospitalizations, said Dr. Kersey Winfree, chief medical officer at SSM Health St. Anthony.
“We do not have the staffing levels available to care for patients that we had a year ago,” Winfree said. “This is hard work with a large number of patients needing an unprecedented amount of care.”
Along with the staffing shortage, there’s been little movement in the percentage of Oklahomans who have gotten vaccinated over the last month. About 41.6 percent of Oklahomans have been vaccinated.
However, the number of Oklahomans who received their first dose of the vaccine ticked up in recent weeks.
In Tulsa County, Saint Francis Health System leaders held a news conference on Monday also pleading with the public to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Since mid-June, Saint Francis went from about 50 COVID patients to 262, approaching the high of 309 patients in January.
Patients are younger than they were last winter, said Dr. Ryan Parker, chief of emergency medicine at Saint Francis. The average age of patients hospitalized for COVID is 56, which is more than 10 years younger than what the hospital system previously saw, she said. The average age of patients who need a ventilator is 51. Ninety-one percent of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated, according to data from Saint Francis.
Dr. Cliff Robertson, president and CEO of Saint Francis Health System, said he’s had some conversations with state officials about staffing issues and possible solutions.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health formed emergency rules last week to allow hospitals to expand bed space, and Stitt approved the rules on Thursday.
On Friday, Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye, in his first press conference in more than a month, stressed the importance of personal responsibility in stopping the spread of the virus.
Frye said the agency asked the Oklahoma Hospital Association to conduct a survey to determine the number of staffed hospital beds available in the state. The Oklahoma State Department of Health told The Frontier on Tuesday details from the survey are expected to come out later this week.
Despite federal guidance that recommends people wear masks indoors in areas with high coronavirus transmission, Frye last week called masking a “personal choice” and said Oklahomans should assess their risks when deciding whether to wear one.
“If you’re not going to rely on people to do what they need to do, I think we’re in trouble,” he said. “Everyone’s responsible for their own health care and their own safety, and we’re encouraging everyone to please do what they need to do to make sure they’re safe and the people around them are safe.”
Health care workers continued to call on Oklahomans to no longer view COVID through a partisan lense, especially when it comes to mask wearing.
“I think we should go back to mask mandates,” said Regan Wickwire, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at SSM Health St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.
Several cities, including Oklahoma City and Tulsa, enforced mask mandates last year, but a statewide mask mandate was never approved by the governor.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature and governor passed a law prohibiting schools from requiring masks of students and staff, although some districts have done so anyway.
While health care workers said the fight against COVID should transcend politics, some Democratic lawmakers said more needed to be done by Republicans to reach their constituents that may be opposed to the vaccine or mask wearing.
“I need to see more from my Republican colleagues because quite frankly we (Democrats) were never going to reach a lot of those folks anyways,” said Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, who was present at Tuesday’s press conference.