Tom Ivestor
Tom Ivester, a former state senator and current public affairs officer for the Oklahoma National Guard, waits for a press conference to begin Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Oklahoma City. (Tres Savage)

As President Donald Trump’s press conference Sunday night delayed the start of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s own media briefing, I stood a socially acceptable distance away from those around me in the education building of the Oklahoma National Guard Regional Training Institute. Eventually, a guardsman clad in military fatigues recognized me from a decade ago.

That man was Tom Ivester, currently the public affairs officer for the Oklahoma National Guard and formerly a state senator from Beckham County, along the western border of Oklahoma. We had met in 2008, when I first covered the Oklahoma Legislature, and our paths had crossed once or twice in subsequent years when I was working in the health care arena and he was continuing his law practice.

As we caught up Sunday night, we had a brief discussion about how the COVID-19 situation is unfolding in rural western Oklahoma. Ivester, who lives in Elk City but has an office in Sayre, said he would be glad to speak about the situation in his capacity as a private citizen.

As of today, Custer County (Weatherford/Clinton) and Jackson County (Altus Air Force Base) are the only western Oklahoma counties that have registered a positive COVID-19 test. But communities big and small in Oklahoma need to practice social distancing and be vigilant, according to Ivester.

The following transcribed interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

1) What’s the situation out in your neck of the woods? How are people reacting, and did it take a little longer to sink in?

As of about a week ago, it was not that big of a deal. But as the week progressed, attitudes started changing. The City of Elk City actually started limiting and shutting down some of its city offices by Thursday, whereas some of the other states were doing it a week or two earlier. The library was finally shut down on Friday. But there are a lot of people who think it is overblown, that it’s being hyped up too much and that it’s not that big of a deal.

2) You’ve been in the position of state senator having to communicate with folks. People probably still trust you, so what has been your message to people in terms of how seriously they need to take this?

That they need to take it a lot more seriously. You want to plan for the worst case and hope for the best. So don’t look back thinking, “Oh, I wish I could have done this or that.” Social distance, those are practical steps, so don’t group in 10 or more. Cancel the family vacation or spring break, as in my case. Spend more time with your family and stay at home.

3) Could you speak to the health care resources in your area? I know a few years ago the Sayre hospital shut down.

Health care is limited in rural Oklahoma. The Sayre hospital is closed. Fortunately, Roger Mills County has one hospital, and Greer County has one hospital. Elk City has a good hospital in it. I don’t know the status of their preparedness, but there have been multiple hospitals out there struggling. Frederick’s has closed down. There is still one open in Kiowa County. I don’t know what strain this is going to put on them, though.

4) What is your best advice for the folks who maybe have questions or for people who are concerned about seniors? Maybe they live in Oklahoma City now, but maybe they’ve got older relatives out in your neck of the woods. What would be your advice, and what efforts are being undertaken to make sure they have what they need?

As of now, I would say call and check on them. But rural Oklahoma has a good, informal support network through our churches and just friends. I got a call on Saturday from folks at my church just asking if I was OK and saying that the service was going to be broadcast. They were calling old folks, so I’m proud of that aspect. But it’s not a time to go visit them unless you just have to. If they’re fine sheltering in place, leave them there and just check on them.

5) Any final comments on smaller communities? I guess a small town might think, “Well, this isn’t going to reach us.”

They need to take this very seriously because we are such a mobile society now, and people travel all over. So if we’ve got people who want to run up to Yukon and go to Lowe’s, cancel that trip. Do takeout instead of going to restaurants. Just take the proper precautions because we are not immune in rural Oklahoma.

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