A discussion during public comments at the regularly scheduled Duncan City Council saw healthcare leaders ask council members to consider imposing a mask mandate within city limits.
Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, provided Duncan Council with statistics before Dr. Jim McGouran and Dr. Michael Hemphill, from DRH Health, and Melanie Wilkins, who owns and operates Wilkins Health and Rehab with her husband Tony, spoke to the council on masks and the need for them in the community after active COVID-19 cases continue to increase.
Rep. McEntire took to the stand first to paint a picture of the COVID-19 situation in Stephens County and Oklahoma.
“Mask wearing can save hundreds of thousands of lives nationwide over time,” McEntire said. “Masks are no magic bullet and no one here should argue that they are. They are not a forcefield. But I’m here to give you some colorful commentary so here it is: The report you have in front of you is from the Weekly Epidemiology Report put out by the Oklahoma State Department of Health. From Aug. 1 to Oct. 21, we saw a 26% increase in cases.”
McEntire said areas with no mask requirement saw an increase of 94% in cases.
“Areas where masks are not required are seeing a 361% increase in cases over mask-required areas,” McEntire said.
Looking at data from the last month alone, however, McEntire said new cases in areas with no mask requirements are 145% higher than mask-required areas.
“Even with the evidence that masks work, we may all differ in our opinions on masks but let’s just consider what this is really all about, and it’s about politics,” McEntire said, noting the issue shouldn’t be political. “There’s plenty of political questions and debates to remain on this topic, but the data speaks for itself councillors. I trust in your leadership to do what’s best for City of Duncan and I’m thankful for your service to our city.”
Dr. McGouran and Dr. Hemphill approached the podium next.
McGouran, the medical director for DRH Health’s COVID-19 task force, said a mask mandate is needed as soon as possible and healthcare providers and the community can’t afford to wait much longer.
“We’re asking you to consider a special meeting later to consider a mask ordinance for the city of Duncan,” McGouran said. “We think this should be done as soon as possible and agree with Marcus that we can’t afford to wait any longer. Unfortunately, this cold weather is moving indoors, the flu season is upon us and now this challenges our hospital even more. Our numbers during this pandemic have increased greatly and have begun to put a stress on our facilities like we have not seen in the past. Our busiest months for sickness usually peak in February but unfortunately, this has potential to last longer than usual. We don’t know when it will end in the spring. A solution may be on the horizon but we agree there will be a lot of time between now and next summer.”
As of Tuesday, Oct. 27, Dr. McGouran said DRH’s facts showed the hospital is at 94% capacity. The facility, as of Tuesday, had 16 COVID-19 patients under their care, four of whom are in ICU. Two are on ventilators and two are using the big rotating beds.
“This is an unusually high census this early in the flu season, to be honest the flu season hasn’t really begun aggressively,” McGouran said. “(Tuesday) Stephens County set another record for active cases at 174. Unfortunately, there’s a bed shortage throughout our region and state … We’ve had trouble transferring patients for renal dialysis last week because there’s no beds available because they’re full of COVID.”
McGouran said the community is headed in the wrong direction and more can be done to prevent the spread and help public safety.
“I feel we can do more, we are clearly headed in the wrong direction,” he said. “We are a community of doers, that’s what brought me to Duncan. Wearing a mask helps me not infect you, it keeps my breath and my exhalation off you. If we all wear it, it keeps the virus load low. The virus load being low helps reduce infectivity.”
Dr. Hemphill spoke next, citing a study conducted in Oklahoma on the differing virus rates between mask-mandated communities and those without mask requirements.
“Basically, Greg Eaton, one of the statisticians at Oklahoma State University worked with the state epidemiologist to look at the difference between those communities wearing masks and not. The difference is startling,” Hemphill said. “They track with one another until the cities with mask ordinances start wearing masks and then they changed trajectory completely. We’re asking you to support the healthcare providers in your community. We need your support, we need your help to curtail the virus.”
Hemphill said while not everyone supports a mask ordinance, they want to try the mask mandate on a four to six week period of time to see how it affects the community.
“Then we would be obligated to come back to you, present the data and it would be at your discretion (to) extend or eliminate the ordinance,” Hemphill said. “In summary, our team at DRH Health is depending on you. We’re working overtime in a risky profession at a most needed hour. Hopefully we can do this for our employees but really it’s for all of the community.”
Councilwoman Patty Wininger asked Hemphill to explain to the public why some healthcare staff continue to get sick if they utilize protective personal equipment.
Hemphill told Wininger continued contact with sick patients and community spread can be factors.
“In a community with infection like the novel Coronavirus, you have encounters with other people and right now it looks like there’s about a 20% chance, or a little bit less, of that person being infected,” he said. “Our nurses, our providers, our physicians are encountering these people everyday. Not only are they encountering these people everyday, they’re encountering them in high risk situations. We put them on devices that aerosolize the virus so whenever you enter a room, there’s virus in the air. Now we use the best protective equipment that we can, Jay (Johnson) and the administration has been kind enough to provide us with the best that we can acquire, but when you have those interactions with one patient, say 10 times a day, even the best personal protective equipment isn’t perfect. If you are taking off your equipment, that sort of thing, there’s a potential for infection. There’s also a risk for community spread just like everyone else when you go home, when you interact with others, when you interact with family.”
Wilkins was the final party who took to the podium. She, however, spoke to council specifically to think about the people affected.
“You’ve heard about the data — I’m here to speak to you about people, people in your community, particularly those residing in nursing homes and assisted living facilities,” she said. “Many of you guys may not know but the way these facilities make their decisions regarding visitation — people coming into visit — is based on the COVID numbers in our community outside of our facility. It’s not based on the numbers inside our facilities. So when the numbers are high, we have to severely limit or shut down visitation.”
Wilkins told council COVID-19 is causing more effects on the elderly because they’re separated from their families and have been this way for eight months.
“That elderly population is already compromised emotionally and physically and concerning mental health, it’s even worse around this time. It’s been eight long months,” Wilkins said. “The facilities have been doing everything we can humanly possible to keep the virus out. A mask ordinance is the one thing we have not tried. We need to mitigate the spread of this virus. We feel that we have to do everything that we can to get the numbers down in our community to a manageable level and they’re not there right now. Our industry relies on our essential workers and they do a phenomenal job, however, some of them are sick, some of them are staying home to take care of people in their families, and some are absent because they’ve been exposed and they have to stay home for two weeks. The strain on our industry, on our healthcare workers is increasing.”
She asked council to imagine an emotional scene where they’re separated from their mother for eight months while she’s inside a facility.
“I just want you to imagine for a moment that you placed your mom in a facility back in February, eight long months ago,” she said. “You said she’d get the care that she needed, you said you’d come to visit and you said you’d bring the grandkids by. That was eight months ago. She hasn’t seen you except through a window or talked to you on the phone. The average stay in a nursing home is two years and we’ve taken eight months already. There’s no substitute, the staff are wonderful, but there’s no substitute for her family.”
When public comment ended, Mayor Ritchie Dennington commented, saying he didn’t know of anyone who has been untouched by COVID-19.
“The first casualty in Stephens County was a friend of mine. My brother has lost his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law in Florida to it,” Dennington said. “It’s real. I want everybody to understand I do believe it is real. There’s a lot of things we can do and you are responsible for doing those things. I appreciate the information that was given tonight. I support the use of masks, encourage the use of masks. I think that’s a very valuable thing. Once again, the medical people are the drivers that understand what it is much better than an oilfield guy like me, so I appreciate what you have to say. Melanie, the heartfelt thing — I can’t imagine being put in a position that they’re in, it’s a lack of understanding of what’s going on and thank you very much for that.”
Because the discussion happened during the public comment portion of the meeting, Duncan City Council cannot respond with action. As of press time Wednesday, a special meeting considering a mask ordinance had not been scheduled. If a meeting is scheduled or if a mask ordinance appears on Duncan City Council’s next meeting agenda, The Banner will update with more information.
Andy Morphew contributed to this story.