As Oklahoma's coronavirus death toll passed 2,000, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported a stunning 3,900 new positive COVID-19 cases on Friday (Dec. 11, 2020). The additional cases push the state's cumulative case total to 229,353 and bring the rolling seven-day average up to 2,925. With cases surging, state officials are taking new steps to reduce the spread. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss in 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, with about three weeks left in the year, Governor Kevin Stitt is issuing a new executive order to address the high numbers of coronavirus cases in the state and also the resulting stress on hospitals. Now, key to this new order is limiting the size of public gatherings. What is the rationale behind this approach?
Shawn Ashley: Well, one thing Governor Stitt and Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye pointed out is that Oklahoma's seven-day average of new cases has remained fairly steady since Thanksgiving. There's been no big spike like many had expected. And the governor pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control says bars and restaurants and other large public gatherings are the primary source of community spread. And that's what the new executive order targets while keeping in place the limitations on bars and restaurant services.
Dick Pryor: So, you mention those. What venues does this pertain to and why are churches exempted from this, especially during the holidays?
Shawn Ashley: Well, it applies to sports facilities because viewership spectators are going to be limited there, as well as other event facilities where holiday parties, weddings and funerals might be held. In terms of churches, what the governor said is that he believed they have been implementing best practices, that they have had their members socially distanced, they have spread out seating, they have required masks, and some have even imposed temperature checks on their members who have been attending services. So, the governor said it was his feeling that those type services could continue.
Dick Pryor: Now, is that evidence or is that more anecdotal?
Shawn Ashley: Well, largely it would be more anecdotal. If you look at the Centers for Disease Control or the White House Coronavirus Task Force reports, churches are often cited as a place where community spread has been taking place. And nationally, we have seen anecdotes where weddings, funerals and other religious events have resulted in significant community spread.
Dick Pryor: Vaccines are coming. What is the vaccination plan?
Shawn Ashley: First, we have to get the vaccines into the state of Oklahoma, and that's expected to happen very, very soon. According to State Department of Health officials, front line health care workers will be the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, some of those vaccines are going to be dedicated to those who are in long-term care facilities, which has also been a problem spot for COVID-19 spread. State health officials are emphasizing that how the vaccine will be distributed ultimately to members of the public like you and I remains rather fluid. It depends on the uptake, how quickly we get these other populations vaccinated and how many doses and how quickly we get those doses of the vaccine.
Dick Pryor: The State Department of Health has told its employees it intends to privatize operation of the state's public health lab, which is being relocated to Stillwater. Why does the department think that privatization of that is necessary?
Shawn Ashley: Yeah, this was a rather confusing story throughout the course of the week. Ultimately, what Travis Kirkpatrick, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Health said was that they hoped to privatize the management of the public health lab in the new pandemic center to be located in Stillwater. They believe that by working with a nonprofit, Prairie One Solutions, they will be able to reduce the cost to oversee the operation of that facility. At this point, however, they don't have numbers that they can provide us and eCapitol, and I'm sure other news organizations, are seeking those numbers.
Dick Pryor: Some interesting legal news has come up lately. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter was one of 17 state attorneys general to add his name to a brief supporting a lawsuit filed by the Texas attorney general that asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the election results in four states that voted for President-elect Joe Biden, and would authorize those states to conduct a special presidential election, appoint different presidential electors who support Donald Trump or prevent those states that voted for Biden from participating in the Electoral College. Respected Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg says there is no basis for this lawsuit and that it is bound to fail. Why is Attorney General Hunter participating in this effort on behalf of the state of Oklahoma?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the attorney general notes that he has been involved in a number of other lawsuits earlier in the election cycle where courts seem to modify the election procedures that had been put in place by state legislatures. Part of the federal lawsuits claim is similar to that, that the election procedures established by legislatures were somehow modified or ignored. Along the way, Hunter says that "I am firmly committed to election security," and that was his reason for joining the lawsuit.
Dick Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: 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.