Coronavirus again dominated news coming out of Oklahoma's state capitol, as Governor Kevin Stitt pointed to positive trends in the state and questioned data being used by the Trump Administration's Coronavirus Task Force. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the latest on the state of Oklahoma's COVID-19 response in this week's Capitol Insider.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. Shawn, at a press conference on Thursday, Governor Kevin Stitt took exception to the White House Coronavirus Task Force state-by-state rankings that show Oklahoma in the top five for COVID-19 positivity rate. What's his beef?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the governor was concerned that that number was too high. Now, the report stated that Oklahoma's positivity rate for the period of September 5th through the 11th was 10% - fifth highest in the country. Stitt noted that the Johns Hopkins University number was much lower, 8.6%. And the state is using the Johns Hopkins model and making its own calculations. But if you look at the Johns Hopkins numbers for the period of September 5th through 11th, the period of the White House Task Force report, it shows that Oklahoma was at about 9.3%, a little bit lower. Now, this may be the result of the fact that Johns Hopkins University and the Coronavirus Task Force are using different data sets to arrive at their numbers.
Dick Pryor: The White House Coronavirus Task Force has renewed its recommendation for Oklahoma to institute a statewide mask mandate, which Governor Kevin Stitt reiterates the state is not going to do. The task force had a specific reason for that recommendation. What was it?
Shawn Ashley: But what they said was that COVID-19, is being brought into nursing homes through community transmission. And for the second week in a row, they pointed to specific numbers in the most recent report. What they showed was that between August 31st and September 6th, 13% of nursing homes in Oklahoma reported at least one new COVID-19 case. Among their residents, 19% reported at least one new staff case and 5% reported at least one new death as a result of COVID-19.
Dick Pryor: Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye told a House committee holding an interim study that Oklahoma was not prepared for the coronavirus outbreak and was in crisis mode from the beginning.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, speaking to the House Public Health Committee in an interim study on the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, the interim commissioner painted a very bleak picture. He said there was a failure in planning, a failure of communication within the agency and with other agencies, also problems with technology and problems with executing the plan. Now, keep in mind that Dr. Frye, the new commissioner, saw this from the inside. He began his work as a subcommittee chair on the Governor's Solutions Task Force. It was not until the end of May - several months into the state's response - that he actually became interim commissioner over the Department of Health. So, he saw those problems from the beginning of the pandemic.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, was there any discussion of what to do about the increasing number of cases in prisons and jails? For instance, the Cleveland County jail has 10 positive cases and there have been at least five inmate deaths and two prison staff deaths in state correctional facilities from COVID-19.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, there was. Representative Regina Goodwin, a Democrat, a Democrat from Tulsa, asked Dr. Frye if he thought Department of Corrections staff, particularly correctional officers, should be tested for COVID-19. And he said, indeed, he thinks they should be. House Democratic leader Emily Virgin pointed out in a recent letter to Governor Stitt that his administration has taken a different view that in fact they cannot require correctional officers to be tested. And she urged him to make changes in that policy. Dr. Frye pointed out that his office and the Department of Health is working with the Department of Corrections to address the outbreaks that are taking place across the state.
Dick Pryor: State general revenue fund collections are better than expected, although the energy sector continues to struggle. What do these new figures suggest right now about what to expect budget wise in the next legislative session?
Shawn Ashley: You know, that's a very interesting question, because I'm really not sure these figures give us a clearer idea of where things may be headed, at least not yet. There are a lot of timing issues, such as moving individual and corporate income tax collections from their normal April deadline into July. That has pushed up collections in the short term, but we don't know what the impact of the pandemic is going to have on the overall economy. Now, remember, back in April, as well, the Oklahoma Tax Commission and the Board of Equalization warned the legislature that fiscal year 2021’s revenue collections, those collections for the current fiscal year, would likely be down about one-point-three billion dollars. And so, the legislature budgeted on that basis.
Dick Pryor: All right. Thanks, Shawn. And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at email@example.com, or contact us on Twitter, @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.