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White House task force: COVID in Oklahoma is ‘unyielding’

November 12, 2020 GMT
Oklahoma Gov. State speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Oklahoma City. Stitt and hospital officials in Oklahoma City joined in a news conference to, as Stitt said, plead with residents to voluntarily socially distance, wash hands and wear face masks, but he again said he would not issue a statewide mask mandate. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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Oklahoma Gov. State speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Oklahoma City. Stitt and hospital officials in Oklahoma City joined in a news conference to, as Stitt said, plead with residents to voluntarily socially distance, wash hands and wear face masks, but he again said he would not issue a statewide mask mandate. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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Oklahoma Gov. State speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Oklahoma City. Stitt and hospital officials in Oklahoma City joined in a news conference to, as Stitt said, plead with residents to voluntarily socially distance, wash hands and wear face masks, but he again said he would not issue a statewide mask mandate. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The White House Coronavirus Task Force has again recommended a statewide mask mandate for Oklahoma amid a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that includes an increase of almost 1,000 cases per day during the past seven days.

Data from Johns Hopkins University on Thursday shows Oklahoma’s seven-day rolling average of new cases per day has risen from 1,185 to 2,080. The task force report, released late Wednesday by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said urgent action is needed.

“The unyielding COVID spread across Oklahoma continues with new hospital admissions, inpatients, and patients in the ICU at record levels, indicating deeper spread across the state,” according to the report. “The most recent trends ... need immediate action including mask requirements to decrease severity in morbidity and mortality among Oklahomans.”

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Gov. Kevin Stitt has opposed a statewide mandate and, on Tuesday, joined with physicians to call on residents to voluntarily wear masks, socially distance and frequently wash their hands.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday, but spokesman Charlie Hannema told the Tulsa World that Stitt and the doctors sent a stronger message with their remarks.

“The governor and the highly respected physician leaders who spoke ... were very clear that the conversation is not about a government mandate; it is about Oklahomans coming together to do the right thing to protect their families and neighbors,” Hannema said.

The task force also recommends that restaurants be limited to 50% capacity with reduced hours and masks be worn by K-12 students and teachers.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education on Thursday again declined to require local school districts to implement a mask mandate, instead approving a resolution encouraging such policies.

“We trust that local communities know how to do what’s best for their kids and their districts,” board member Jennifer Monies said.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister pushed in July for a statewide mandate for districts in areas with high numbers of cases, but the board opted to let individual districts make that decision.

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest sharply criticized the board’s decision.

“This is a complete lack of leadership with potentially grave consequences for our students, educators, support professionals and communities,” Priest said in a statement.

An informal survey of districts in late August by the education department found about one-third of the state’s more than 500 districts did not have a mask mandate and another survey is currently underway, spokesperson Carrie Burkhart said Thursday.

There were a reported 144,691 confirmed virus cases in the state Thursday, according to the health department, an increase of 2,357 from Wednesday, and 1,217 people hospitalized, down from 1,248 hospitalizations the previous day.

The true number of infections is likely higher because many people haven’t been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The health department reported an additional 11 deaths for a total of 1,481 since the pandemic began.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and a cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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Associated Press writer Sean Murphy contributed to this report.