Oklahoma is increasing COVID-19 testing capacity tenfold, preparing to unveil four mobile testing units and considering the “possibility” of eventually having to pursue statewide changes for certain businesses, according to state leaders.
Joined by Adjutant General Michael Thompson, Secretary of Mental Health Jerome Loughridge and Secretary of Science and Innovation Dr. Kayse Shrum, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt addressed and answered questions from media for about 40 minutes this evening.
“Oklahomans are taking this seriously,” Stitt said. “The recommendations from the CDC, I’m hearing from all over the state that we are keeping gatherings below 10 or more, so thank you for everything you are doing.”
Stitt reiterated the preference he stated Friday that state government not force restrictions at the municipal level.
“We are following CDC guidelines, and that is to stop groups of over 10 or more,” Stitt said. “When you shut down something, when does it come back? This could go on for a while. (…) From what I’m seeing, the churches and businesses are doing that on their own and being very responsible.”
But asked what he would do if state epidemiologists recommended to him that all Oklahoma restaurants, bars and theaters face the same restrictions implemented by the mayors of Oklahoma City, Norman, Tulsa and other cities, Stitt said he might take such action.
“It’s a possibility. Everything is on the table as we are in uncharted territory,” Stitt said. “This is changing so rapidly as the CDC gives more recommendations to us. So we’ll take that as it comes.”
Asked what she would tell the governor if state epidemiologists recommended a statewide shutdown or adjustment of certain businesses, Shrum said state health leaders will be watching certain “triggers” in formulating decisions.
“What we’ve been working on over time is saying, what are the triggers that will be put into place?” Shrum said. “We have to watch those indications, and as we move out of the mitigation phase and we are monitoring our cases and our testing increases, there may be a time when we make that recommendation to the governor.”
National Guard’s mission: ‘To help Oklahoma’
Sunday’s press conference was held at the Oklahoma National Guard Regional Training Institute where 19 members of the guard have been mobilized to observe COVID-19 developments and plan for any actions deemed necessary by the governor. When he is in Oklahoma City, Stitt and his family live at a residence on the training institute grounds.
“The rumor that we have activated the National Guard to shut down the borders is simply not true,” Stitt said.
Thompson, who leads the roughly 10,000-member Oklahoma National Guard, reiterated the organization’s role.
“The reason the guard exists is to deploy and to help Oklahoma in its time of need,” Thompson said. “There are two things in common when the guard deploys. Number one, they deploy when Oklahoma needs us. And number two — from everything from a prison riot to dropping hay out of the back of a helicopter — we are never in charge. We are there to support the governor or that community in need. That will be no different here.”
Testing to be ramped up ‘by the end of the week’
Loughridge and Shrum discussed what are intended to be substantial increases in Oklahoma’s ability to test for COVID-19, which thus far has been limited first by test-kit shortages and then by an international shortage of the necessary chemical reagent.
“We should be able to expand our testing capabilities in the state by utilizing both OU and OSU’s research laboratories by the end of the week,” said Shrum, who is president of the OSU Center for Health Sciences. “At OSU, we can run up to 2,000 tests per day and have results in up to 24 hours. We should be able to expand our testing capability tenfold by the end of the week.”
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Loughridge said four new mobile testing units will be placed in Oklahoma County, Tulsa County, Kay County and Pittsburg County. He also addressed supply levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, surgical masks and n95 masks, which have been a grave concern among health professionals across the nation.
“In an aggregate number, we have roughly 9.3 days of PPE on hand,” Loughridge said.
Stitt said state reserves and federal emergency allocations are being factored in.
“Our state does have a strategic supply, and it’s owned by the Department of Health,” Stitt said. “The federal government also has a strategic supply that they will deliver to the state pro-rata.”
Shrum said health leaders have developed a hospital mapping system that uses color coding to know when any facility falls below a one-week supply.
Stitt said Oklahomans need to continue social distancing while innovating when possible.
“I know that Oklahomans are fearful and anxious at these uncertain times,” Stitt said. “We are all dealing with a little bit of anxiety. I want to let you know we are going to get through this.”
So far, 67 out of more than 700 COVID-19 tests on Oklahomans have come back positive. Track the state’s data here.
Watch Sunday’s full press conference
(Update: This story was updated at 8:10 p.m. Sunday, March 22, to include additional information. It was updated again at 4:50 p.m. Saturday, April 4, to correct reference to Loughridge’s title.)