With coronavirus surging across the U.S. and the number of cases growing in Oklahoma, interim Commissioner of Health Colonel Lance Frye discussed the current situation in the state with KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley.
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. And our guest is Oklahoma's interim Commissioner of Health, Colonel Lance Frye. Colonel, welcome.
Col. Lance T. Frye, M.D.: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Shawn Ashley: Colonel, how would you characterize the state of the coronavirus outbreak in Oklahoma today?
Lance Frye: Well, we are definitely seeing increases in numbers. Our hospitalizations have increased, as well, but the percentage of people hospitalized compared to the number of positives basically said the numbers of possible positives are not consistent with the number of hospitalizations. We're doing better than we were with the beginning of this. Also, our hospitalization stays have better outcomes than they did before. So I think we're learning how to treat the virus better, as well.
Shawn Ashley: Would you say Oklahomans are slowing the spread of COVID-19 yet?
Lance Frye: I don't know if we’re slowing the spread of it yet. You know, it's just too early to say. We've seen some days where it looks like it's maybe leveling or plateauing off, but you'd really need a longer period of time to look at all that data and kind of figure out where we are.
Dick Pryor: Medical preparedness is about response to the virus. What more should we, the people, do to slow the spread?
Lance Frye: The things that we keep talking about, wearing a mask when you can't social distance when you're in large groups of people and quite frankly, avoiding large groups of people, if you, if you can, or especially if you're in a vulnerable population and washing hands, avoiding touching your eyes, your mouth, just the things that we've been saying all along, that's really what to do.
Dick Pryor: You, the Oklahoma Hospital Association and other medical professionals have developed a coronavirus surge plan to be implemented if that becomes necessary. First, what does the plan do? And second, what would trigger it?
Lance Frye: Well, we've had a plan all along and that was based off of hospital capacity numbers. That was the, plus a plan where we got 140 percent. Now, that was based off of every hospital was going to be at maximum capacity. That just didn't happen. We still have that in place. But that's really a worst case scenario for us. What we've seen happen is that we've had more hot spots happen like Guymon or now it's the metro areas. And so we've really had to focus in individual areas and individual regions and hospitals instead of a statewide surge. And so we've uh, we've kind of modified that. We've met with the hospital association and a lot of hospital CEOs. We've talked through it and they are comfortable with managing their hospital systems.
They have regional partners that they can refer patients to if they need to. They have their own cut-offs that they know if they're hospital is full and they've got people backed up in the ICU waiting for beds, then they're not going to do elective surgeries that next day. So, they're really wanting to be more involved in the processing and granular with the way that they're managing. And quite frankly, they're the experts. We're not. So that's that's one piece of how the plan has changed. We're really focusing on letting the people that know how to run these hospitals, run the hospitals and manage that capacity. And we are there to help them through the process.
They've put on hold some beds in each of the metro areas and they're going to be obviously reimbursed for doing that. That's our insurance policy, to try to make sure that everyone in Oklahoma has a bed that they can go to. And with staffing, we've concentrated on that. We've gotten that done. And then we still have those other tiers that we can do. So, we still have Army Corps of Engineer hospitals that we could we can build up the plans for them all develop, get ready to go. Luckily, we've never had to do anything like that. But we have the capability.
Shawn Ashley: There have been reports in social media in the last several days of hospitals being full. Is that what you're hearing from the CEOs?
Lance Frye: No, it's not. In fact, I had many conversations yesterday and again all morning today about that, because when you hear those things, you know, it's alarming and you want to make sure that there's no, not been some miscommunication. Patty Davis of the Oklahoma Hospital Association and I spoke twice today actually about this, but she's reached out, confirmed with all the hospital CEOs in the metro regions. And they are all telling her that they have capacity, they have beds, that this is not, in fact, truly what's going on.
Dick Pryor: There have been some problems with the online dashboard that presents daily COVID-19 updates. Recently, more than 800 cases did not make it into the system. Have those problems been fixed?
Lance Frye: It's a good question. I'll take a moment to try to explain it simply. But when a test is, when a specimen is collected, then all those labs, once they run those specimens have to report those into us. So, they come in in all kinds of different formats because there are lots of different labs and they all don't report in the same format. So, we have to take those and then input them into a system that we use called FIDO. And then once they're in that system, we have to make sure that they're not repeat. We want to see unique new cases. Someone may be getting a test again in order to try to get back to work. And so it's not all those positive that can come in are new positives.
So, it takes a while to get through that process. And, we also are working with Google. They've been very helpful. They're trying to develop a system on the front end before it goes into this FIDO system that will accept all these different types of files and do a front-end analysis to try to get us a better instance number back as far as what's going on. So, there's always going to be somewhat of a backlog. But yes, when that system goes down, when it crashes because it never was built to receive 10000 lab results a day, when it does have issues, then we do get a backlog that that group of suspected causes but are not validated yet, obviously goes up because there's, there's a dam in the process when that happens.
Shawn Ashley: Are you at all concerned that you might have missed some valuable information needed to track hot spots and then react to them when the system was going down?
Lance Frye: Yes, that's our concern all along. I mean, we want to make sure that we are close to real-time processing and analysis of that information as we can so that we can react appropriately and plan appropriately. And so, whenever there's a system very like that and you get behind it, you know, it is concerning. That's why we're working very diligently to try to fix all those issues.
Dick Pryor: Over the last several weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma has shown an uptick. And it remains at several hundred new cases each day. Why, Colonel Frye, is that growth happening?
Lance Frye: Well, you know, when we started this, we did what we could, you hear about flattening the curve and kind of push it off to the right. Well, you're really delaying it. You're not stopping them. You're kind of delaying that process in order to prepare for it because we weren't prepared. You know, we had one day of PPE on hand in our stockpile. We had we had no in-state testing capacity. We didn't have a surge plan developed. You know, there were a lot of things that we needed to do as a state to prepare our health care system for this emergency. And, um, and we did that. I'm very proud of the way that we were able to do that. Now, we're in a much different situation than we were.
You know, it's now we're in trying to manage that. And really, it's all about risk management. You know, everything we do every day has some sort of risk associated with it. And so when you make a decision to go to the grocery store there's some risk associated. You could get in a car accident. You get there are many things that can happen. COVID is a big part of that now and it's on everyone's mind.
So that's why, you know, before you do things again, think about who you are. Am I sixty-five and have co-morbidities? Or where am I? What are my surroundings and really and what am I planning on doing? What am I thinking about doing? And just analyze that. Is it something you really need to do? Is it going to put you in harm's way? And, do the things you can to try to protect yourself. You know we talk a lot about hospital capacity. We have it, but we don't want to have to use it. We want people to do what they can to try to keep from spreading or catching the virus.
Shawn Ashley: Given how these numbers have increased since the reopening began, did the state open too quickly or perhaps too aggressively so that you sort of undid some of that work you had been doing?
Lance Frye: You know, I don't know the answer to that. That's a difficult question. I think that we've done really well. When you look at us compared to our surrounding states, not just nationally, but regionally, we're in a lot better shape than they are. I don't really know why. I don't have all the answers for that. I wish I did. But so far, even though our numbers are going up, we're still faring better than some of our surrounding, you know, partnering states. It's hard to look back at that and say we made the wrong decision. I think that there are a lot of people that feel like economically they're really glad that we did that. So, again, it's balance. And I guess history will tell us where we fare with this.
Dick Pryor: But the numbers are going up, the number of cases, not just because there's more testing?
Lance Frye: You're correct. Yeah. You do get an increase in numbers by testing because you see a real view of what's going on. But it's also we also know that it's you know, it's in our communities, it's spreading. It's not just increased testing that's showing us those numbers.
Dick Pryor: The State Board of Education voted on Thursday not to adopt requirements in the school opening plan presented by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. Now, what would have been required is just suggested, which essentially leaves everything up to local school districts to figure out. Your department helped the state superintendent develop the original plan. Are you comfortable with schools across the state opening this fall without any state requirements?
Lance Frye: I think that our job is to really to provide guidance and evidence-based direction as much as we can. This is, again, unknown territory. You know, we're just now starting to talk about opening schools throughout the nation. And so we don't really know what the effect is going to be. Some good news is that children are usually not the super spreaders that we originally thought they were and they usually fare very well. I mean, it's unusual for children to have a serious problem with COVID-19. It's difficult. We wouldn't provide guidance for them, but I'm not against local municipalities deciding what's best for their communities. We have very rural areas and we have some metro areas and the population densities vary greatly. So, it's hard to do a statewide mandate and have… it’s just difficult to do that throughout a state with such great diversity.
Shawn Ashley: If there are people today who still don't know where to go to get tested, what should they do?
Lance Frye: They should call the 211 number or they could call our health department. We have to kind of look at our partnership with the state universities as our state public health lab system. So, we had ours, the health department, but we also have OU’s and we have OSU’s. And so, we look at those as kind of our main ones. Another person has been IMMY Labs in Norman, who has been working with us nearly from the very beginning and doing a great job there, too. And then of course there are lots of commercial labs. You can go to a CVS or Wal-Mart or, you know, all the different places to get labs done, as well. But if they just call that number, they can get some direction.
Dick Pryor: I want to circle back to the education question for just a moment, because it's on the minds of a lot of people right now. As a medical professional, what is your advice to those school districts and parents of young students about what they should do to get ready to go back to school, whatever that looks like, in the fall?
Lance Frye: I'm not a fan of not going back to school. I know that people need to do that, but I know that it can be done and in a lot of different ways. Education is very important to our children and we need to move forward with that in some manner.
But I would just be informed, you know, try to make informed decisions and talk to your local communities to find out, you know, what's going on in your community.
Dick Pryor: Colonel Lance Frye, interim Commissioner of Health, thank you. We're glad to have this time with you.
Lance Frye: Thank you.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at email@example.com, or contact us on Twitter @kgounews. You can also find us online @kgounews and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.