Stillwater leaders eye hospitalizations as trigger for COVID-19 restrictions

This Oklahoma State Department of Health map shows Payne County as one of 11 in the state where COVID-19 is spreading at epidemic levels, defined as at least 100 cases per 100,000 people. Payne County, which had an estimated population of almost 82,000 in 2019, has had 208 total cases. Stillwater accounts for 178 of those total cases, with 31 reported recoveries. Provided

With the number of active COVID-19 cases in Stillwater rising from none to 147 over the course of two weeks, Stillwater’s city leaders, medical community and the Payne County Health Department are monitoring the situation closely and preparing to respond.

On Friday, the City of Stillwater released a statement that said a more restrictive emergency proclamation could follow if the disease’s spread isn’t slowed and Stillwater Medical Center sees an increase in patients requiring hospitalization.

The City of Stillwater has moved into Phase III of the state’s Open Up and Recover Safely plan, but could step back to Phase II provisions.

The first move would likely be a reduction in occupancy for businesses and limitations on the number of people who can attend gatherings, City Manager Norman McNickle told the News Press.

“We open it up and it explodes,” he said. “Let’s slow this thing down. We don’t want to shut things down again any more than people want us to … We are concerned. Those of us in local government are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of all of our residents. If we have to take action, we will.”

The city has seen especially rapid growth in confirmed infections over the past week, often jumping by more than 20 cases between reports and, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, driven by increases among people 35 or younger.

McNickle said City officials haven’t been privy to details from contact tracing of individuals but, based on generalizations, they understand that the source of many infections appears to be big groups of people in close quarters. Given the accelerating spread of the disease, he finds the number of people walking around without face coverings to be troubling.

And he worries that it will begin spreading from young, healthy people, to the older and more medically vulnerable population.

“It’s gonna jump,” McNickle said. “It’s gonna jump to the other group.”

Shyla Eggers, Stillwater Medical Center’s Director of Public Relations, says it’s already happening.

“In the last few days, we’re seeing more older patients with positive cases,” she said.

Whether Mayor Will Joyce rolls back Phase III provisions ultimately depends on how many patients with active COVID-19 infections are being treated at Stillwater Medical Center.

If the hospital shifts into its emergency plan, the city will also take action, McNickle said.

On Friday, Eggers confirmed that SMC had one patient.

If it begins to consistently see 3-4 patients, the hospital will go to its surge plan, she said. That expands its ICU capacity from 7 beds to 16. The hospital would have the ability to care for many more coronavirus patients in specific areas, while still treating other patients.

It’s something SMC’s administrators and staff would like to avoid.

“We’re disappointed that more people haven’t heeded the warnings,” Eggers said. “… It’s frustrating to see the numbers roll in.”

In a City of Stillwater release, Joyce stressed that he does not want to issue a new, more restrictive emergency proclamation, but that it may happen.

“Right now, we are focusing our efforts on more education and public outreach,” he said.

The City Council recently formed a COVID-19 Communications Committee to focus on outreach. Members include OSU, Payne County Health Department, Oklahoma State Health Department, Stillwater Medical Center and the City of Stillwater Marketing and Civic Engagement Department.

Residents are being asked to follow CDC recommendations:

Wear a mask or face covering when unable to socially distance.

Wash your hands and sanitize them.

Stay home if you have symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

Keep away from others who are sick.

Limit close contact with others, staying at least 6 feet apart and avoiding large crowds.

“We ask that everyone be an advocate for at-risk populations,” McNickle said. “Even if you don’t think you are vulnerable or that you are in contact with those at-risk, you are. Your actions, or lack of actions have a direct impact on your fellow residents. Please be considerate. Wear your masks. Limit close contact with others.”

Eggers understands that people want to be out, but she echoed McNickle’s sentiment.

“Just be safe, just do the right thing,” she said.

Twitter: @mcharlesNP

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