Increasing cases of COVID-19 across the county and state are prompting local health care workers to warn residents to be careful and to ask community leaders to take protective actions, including community mask mandates.

Health care experts, using data supplied by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said while positive cases had been steady in communities with mask mandates (to include Lawton) for much of the summer, those numbers have been increasing sharply in late October, and they fear even more cases will result from gatherings over Thanksgiving, and again at Christmas. Their solutions range from asking school districts to consider returning to virtual classes after Thanksgiving rather than in-person, to supporting efforts in communities without mask mandates to set them.

A bit of good news

Brandie Combs, regional director of the state health department’s District 5 (which includes Comanche and nine other counties in southwest Oklahoma), told the Lawton City Council on Tuesday there is one positive bit of news: the nation is closer to a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We hope to move forward with health care workers and long-term care facilities sometime soon,” she said, of Oklahoma’s plan to roll out the vaccine in an orderly manner (Gov. Kevin Stitt already has said priority will be given to emergency responders and health care workers).

But, despite the good news about the vaccine, Combs said she remains concerned about the rising cases.

“We’re not in a good place,” she said, explaining that while the average daily number of positive cases had been 24 in October, it now is 66.

Number of cases increasing

When she and Dr. Scott Michener addressed the City Council in mid-October, there were 1,964 positive cases in Comanche County. That number was 4,813 when she addressed the council Tuesday. There were 15 deaths in Comanche County on Oct. 13; that total had risen to 31 on Tuesday, and Combs said two more people died in District 5 on Tuesday.

Combs, who thanked the Lawton council for its citywide mask mandate, said she worries about those who still argue “it’s not necessary.” It is, she said, adding the rising number of COVID-19 patients who need hospitalization has an effect on others who may need hospitalization for other conditions, or people who try to access emergency rooms and have to go elsewhere because that hospital is at capacity.

“We’ve got to do something to slow the virus,” she said, adding people in bars, health care facilities, churches and other places need to wear masks, and people need to strongly consider having virtual holidays in coming weeks because it’s not forever. “We see a light. We see a vaccine coming.”

Michener, chief medical officer for Comanche County Memorial Hospital, admits he is frustrated by the situation and by those who don’t believe COVID-19 is real and dangerous, and masks are part of a successful three-pronged approach to stemming the tide.

“For the first time in my career, we have to defend ourselves,” he said, of claims from patients that COVID-19 isn’t as dangerous as medical professionals say, or that they even have it.

He’s especially incensed about claims that masks don’t work.

“It’s complete crap,” he said, adding masks can help a situation that is becoming steadily worse.

He said on Tuesday afternoon, Comanche County Memorial Hospital had 48 COVID-19 patients, accounting for about one-third of hospitalized patients. ICU was at 120 percent capacity, a situation he said scared him because of its ramifications. When he left the hospital Tuesday to attend the 2 p.m. council meeting, the emergency room was holding at least 20 patients because there were no beds upstairs, he said, adding these patients were not people who could be treated and released; they needed to be hospitalized. Continuing that trend poses a scary scenario, he said, of the risk that someone might be turned away from a hospital.

Michener said 631 health care workers across Oklahoma had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, and he was angry about a state health department decision that will allow asymptomatic medical personnel to continue to care for patients. Instead, the decision should be a mask mandate, he said, of a decision he said will not be made as residents continue to pursue everyday activities (he noted Monday was the largest air travel day in the U.S. since the pandemic started).

“We’re heading toward a place that makes us nervous,” he said, adding his hospital made the decision last week to suspend in-patient surgeries.

Chris Godman, epidemiologist at Comanche County Memorial Hospital, confirmed he and others are worried about students heading back to school after Thanksgiving gatherings. He said that is why he and others are urging school districts to consider making the week of Nov. 30 a virtual school week for all students, and doing the same at Christmas.

“If you have an outbreak, that’s when it will appear,” he said, of students and staff who may be exposed to COVID-19 at Thanksgiving.

The potential impact to hospitals scares Godman, he said, noting the more patients in the hospital with COVID-19, the less room will be available for those with other problems.

Godman said he remains a strong proponent of mask mandates, adding that in his community, Duncan Regional Hospital is pushing community leaders to make that decision, as the council did in Lawton. He also said the onus for enforcement of the mandate be placed on businesses, adding that while health care professionals want businesses to remain open, “we also want to be safe.”

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