It appears mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus in Oklahoma now — at a time when hospitals fill to overflow capacity and the number of new cases chart a vertical path to new highs — might best be achieved by eradicating top health officials.
The timidity of top health officials left Oklahomans vulnerable to a pandemic likely to become deadlier than imagined as the flu season exacerbates this public health crisis. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Dr. Lance Frye, the governor’s pick to serve as interim health commissioner.
Frye recommends Oklahomans voluntarily wear face coverings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, describing it as “a personal responsibility, a social responsibility,” and something “everyone needs to do.” At the same time, he said there is no need for a mask mandate in Oklahoma because he believes it would be unenforceable.
Mixed messaging like this is especially galling in light of data compiled by the agency Frye has led since May. When he made those comments, the Oklahoma State Health Department had published at least five reports providing evidence that proves mask mandates adopted by Oklahoma municipalities significantly reduced the number of new cases in those areas.
During a press conference this past week, Frye said, “there’s nothing off the table” when considering ways to mitigate the pandemic. He immediately removed from the table a mask mandate, which Dr. Jared Taylor, the state’s epidemiologist, describes as a political decision.
This decision by the state’s top health officials to ignore the best available evidence demonstrates a lack of leadership. They have breached a duty of care for political expediency — it’s a bargain for which Oklahomans have paid a price that is too high.
To see an example of leadership during the pandemic, Gov. Kevin Stitt and his appointees should look no further than the Cherokee Nation. Brown University School of Public Health Dean Ashish Jha, in an article published by STAT, held up the tribe as “a reminder of how much leadership matters.”
The medical news publication profiled the Tahlequah-based tribe and its pandemic response efforts. With a mask mandate implemented early, hospitals and clinics stocked with personal protective equipment, and what STAT describes as “a small army of public health officers fully supported by their chief,” Jha said the Cherokee Nation demonstrates how effective leadership “can make a huge difference” even “under difficult circumstances, with limited resources.”
It is not too late for state officials to learn from the examples set by true leaders.