Like much of the rest of the nation, Oklahoma is still trying to manage the spread of coronavirus. While deaths remain relatively low, White House metrics show the Oklahoma trend line is among the most troubling in the nation. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the latest numbers and how COVID-19 is affecting the state's prison population.
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, coronavirus continues to dominate news coming out of state government. Again, Oklahoma is in the red zone for cases and positivity rate per 100,000 population in the latest report from the White House. The national average is 88 positive cases per 100,000 population. Oklahoma is at 146. Where does Oklahoma rank nationally among states?
Shawn Ashley: That 146 per 100,000 population was good enough for a ninth ranking in the nation. And in addition to being in the red zone for the number of new cases per 100,000, Oklahoma was also in the red zone for its positivity rate. For the period examined in the report Oklahoma's positivity rate was 11.3 percent versus a 5.2 percent rate nationally, so Oklahoma continues to move well ahead of the nation. Twenty-four of the state's counties were in the red zone, according to the report, and 26 were in the yellow zone.
Dick Pryor: What is the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommending that Oklahoma do to address being in the red zone?
Shawn Ashley: Well, its newest report, the September 6th report, like the August 30th report, does not recommend a statewide mask mandate. Instead, the recommendations are a bit more focused. They suggest requiring masks in metro areas and counties with COVID-19 cases among students or teachers in K to 12 schools, and we've certainly seen a lot of that across the state. It also makes recommendations for university settings, particularly in terms of increasing testing and contact tracing. And as it has in the past, it again recommends closing bars and restricting indoor dining.
Dick Pryor: A second Department of Corrections inmate has died of the coronavirus. The number of DOC deaths is low and the positivity rate is about seven percent. But the potential for case growth is troubling. What is DOC doing about it?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the Board of Corrections was told on Wednesday that the department is working with the state and local departments of health to test and contact trace within prisons. Inmates are tested if they show any symptoms of COVID-19 before they're transferred, before hospitalizations or medical appointments. If an inmate tests positive, he's isolated, he goes through contact tracing and then he or she undergoes daily symptom checks to make sure the disease does not grow worse. DOC Offenders Services Director Millicent Newton-Embry told the Board of Corrections that the Department of Health is really treating its facilities like long-term care facilities or other communal living facilities, where you have a lot of people grouped together under the same roof.
Dick Pryor: The leader of the House Democratic Caucus, Norman State Representative Emily Virgin, is urging Governor Stitt to implement a regular testing program for DOC employees. Is there not already such a program in place?
Shawn Ashley: No. In fact, there's not, and Newton-Embry told the Board of Corrections on Wednesday that staff were not even required to inform their bosses if they undergo a COVID-19 test and they're not required to provide those results. Leader Virgin notes in her letter to the governor that the state has taken the position that they cannot require a test. And she says this position is without legal basis, noting that other states have implemented staff testing procedures there.
Dick Pryor: The State Department of Education has learned there are other threats out there besides COVID-19.
Shawn Ashley: Yeah, computer hacking. The Wave, the state-based real-time data system, which includes student demographic information, enrollment information, teacher and course, data information, was hacked a couple of weeks ago. Now, mone of that information was believed to have been accessed, according to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which manages information technology services for the State Department of Education. Over the last couple of weeks, OMES has been working to fix the problems that were implemented on The Wave, mainly changes to the landing page and some defacement of it. And now that system is reportedly back online and functioning.
Dick Pryor: Secretary of State Michael Rogers resigned as Secretary of Education a month ago, citing his desire to focus on one job. He's still Secretary of State and now he's been appointed to a second position…again. What’s going on there?
Shawn Ashley: That's right, Secretary of State Michael Rogers is now Secretary of State and Secretary of Native American Affairs Michael Rogers. In December of 2019 former secretary of Native American Affairs Lisa Billy resigned from that position, citing the disputes between the governor and Native American tribes over the gaming compacts. That position has remained unfilled until Thursday, when Rogers was appointed to that position via the change in the offices. Governor Stitt also announced that Ryan Walters would serve as Secretary of Education, though.
Dick Pryor: All right. Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And, that’s Capitol Insider. If you have questions, email 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.