Editor’s note: Interviews by Monica Roberts, Director of Media Relations, Oklahoma State University
Faced with an unprecedented crisis, public officials and health experts at every level across the nation have grappled with some of the toughest decisions of their careers since COVID-19 upended our nation last spring. As a college town, Stillwater certainly faces circumstances that require an extra layer of collaboration among city, county, state and university officials. We asked these local leaders how they have been managing through the pandemic, what keeps them up at night and what they want the community to be thinking about next.
Dr. Jared Taylor, Interim State Epidemiologist, State of Oklahoma and Associate Professor, Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine
With masks and social distancing in place to help flatten the curve, what are public health experts thinking about next?
What’s next is certainly a vaccine. The perspective is that we need to hold the numbers, the level of transmission, as low as we can to give the vaccine the strongest chance of success at truly controlling the disease. I liken it to a wildfire: at this point, we’re just trying to hold the perimeter to keep it contained. We’re not doing nearly enough throughout the whole country to extinguish the fire, but if we can keep it contained until we get a vaccine or multiple vaccines available, then we have a better chance of putting it out. If we allow it to roam uncontrolled and get so devastating before the fire department gets there, then the vaccine won’t have the effect we would like.
What can the public hope to expect from a vaccine?
I do have confidence in the FDA and its approval process. I think it will be safe, but we need to acknowledge that all things have risks and potential side effects. In general, it’s a very low risk and we want to weigh that against the other known negative risk. Will it be effective? It won’t be a miracle product as we are being told. If it’s 70% effective and we get 80% of the population getting it, that’s not where we want to be but it’s better than where we are now. I do want to be realistic about the timeframe. We’re all tired and exhausted and ready for the next big thing. I want us to have optimism, but we need to be prepared to really fight through this winter. Get vaccinated for the flu, wear masks and social distance because we won’t have a COVID vaccine ready for the general population this coming winter.
With flu season arriving soon, what do we as a community need to be thinking about?
The upside is that masks and social distancing will help us with controlling the flu. There are really two extreme options: 1) we don’t do things right and have twice as many problems; or 2) we do things right and have a mild flu season and also control COVID. We (as a society) have gotten complacent with the flu, so wearing masks and social distancing will help with the flu also because we’ve never adopted these measures for the flu before.
You’re serving as the interim state epidemiologist. What’s most on your mind?
At this point it’s complacency and the struggle that we have at getting the public to see the fuller impact of this. I understand we’re all exhausted, and it’s very challenging. Isolation and quarantine are disruptive and can create a financial strain, taking kids out of school, etc. I understand where people’s frustrations are coming from. No one out here in the public health arena is acting sinisterly and worsening the impact of the virus; we are struggling against complacency and thinking it can’t get much worse — that the remedies are worse than the disease. People need to realize how bad it can get if we don’t take these measures.
We hear talk about herd immunity. Explain how this works and why wouldn’t we just let immunity be established through mass infection?
So herd immunity is the situation where a large enough proportion of the population is immune and protected against the disease — whether it’s cattle or people. Let’s say you’ve got 100 in the herd and 85 of them are immune and they’re moving around and interacting randomly. The probability of one of those 15 who’s not immune bouncing into the very low number who are infected is pretty low. You’re mostly surrounded by those who don’t pose a risk to you, and they protect indirectly those who are not immune. You’ll hear folks talking about needing 50% to 60% of the population resistant in order to achieve herd immunity. That’s really just talking about preventing the large outbreaks. And so in that situation, you’re still not really protecting the vulnerable. Regardless of which of those definitions you choose, we’re talking about having a large proportion of the population immune and protected from the virus. Under the looser definition, you probably need at least 60% of the population resistant. But if you go to the higher definition that I favor of truly protecting the susceptible, you probably need to have 80% immunity. We likely have less than 10% of the population currently who have been exposed, and we don’t know that they all achieved immunity. Clearly, we have a long way to go before herd immunity is achieved.
At the local Stillwater level, what’s your analysis of how it’s going? What would you urge both local leaders and the community to be mindful of?
Stillwater’s leaders are doing a great job and working hard to find the balance with the levels of restrictions. I think we have the opportunity to see progress being made for Stillwater to be in a better spot in the very near future. For residents and students on campus, we have to get to the point that wearing masks and social distancing are second nature. If we continue to follow that we have the potential to see positive changes locally. We need students to understand they are a part of the Stillwater community, and we all have to work together to protect the community more broadly. We have the opportunity to let young people have the college experience, but we need them to be proactive to allow that to happen.
With the reporting of local case counts, hospitalizations and death counts, people sometimes read too much into them when they see daily or weekly numbers. It’s important to think about the timeline as there’s at least a week from exposure to symptoms. We don’t need to be so fixated on every blip in the numbers. We need to step back and look at the trends. Regardless of what we see, the message is still the same: good hygiene, testing, masks, distancing. The numbers are informative in the long scheme of things to see trends, but we don’t need to overinterpret them.
What else do you want the community to know?
Everyone at the CDC, the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the local county health department are earnest and sincere in our desire to protect the people of the United States, Oklahoma, Stillwater, etc. Folks can disagree with us, and that’s fine. We just ask that they recognize that these health officials are your friends and neighbors that you’ve known for years. And please be respectful to one another when you disagree.
Also, asymptomatic carriers play a role in transmission, so we have to detect as many cases as we can. It’s not good enough to test the ill people — we need broad-scale testing to have a better chance at containing the virus. I urge the public to please consider getting tested if you’ve been exposed and certainly if you’ve been contacted as part of an investigation. It’s widely available and free in most places, depending where you go and insurance or the health department can cover the costs. It’s informative for you, protective for your family and helpful for us at the state level.
Will Joyce, Mayor, City of Stillwater
What are your thoughts on the local situation?
It’s very fluid. I think we as a community have done a very good job at taking precautions and trying to continue with as much of our normal lives as we can. We’ve tried to strike a balance and have been better off than a lot of college communities around the country. It can change from day to day, however. Recently our hospitalizations have increased while our local cases have gone down. As a community, we’ve done well but we’re not out of the woods. Circumstances can change, so we need to continue our precautions.
What is your No. 1 concern?
The ability of Stillwater Medical Center to continue treating both COVID and non-COVID patients. Because it’s a regional facility, we’ve been concerned from the beginning about what a surge could do. We need to keep our hospital in a position to care for everyone in the community.
What was the toughest day or decision for you so far?
The hardest day was when we saw our first local death from the virus – definitely a day that stands out. It was a very sobering reminder of why this issue is so important because people’s lives are at stake – local friends and neighbors. As for difficult decisions, early on when we had to close private businesses for a time; that was really tough.
What would you like the community to know about the decisions made by local officials?
I hope people understand that public officials are in these roles because we wanted to help serve our communities. People often say to me around town, “This isn’t what you signed up for!” No, a pandemic wasn’t on my radar but at the same time, all of us in these positions took these roles because we thought we could help our community address challenges that would arise. That was my motivation and continues to be. When we hear allegations of nefarious plots or self-serving agendas or personal gain that we’re getting from the situation, it dumbfounds me. It’s not true and it’s hurtful to folks who have put themselves in a position to make very hard decisions on behalf of their community. If we make bad decisions we should be called out – I don’t mind the criticism but I hope the community will recognize that elected officials do this to help make a positive difference. The decisions we make impact our families, too, since we live here and are all dealing with the same problems.
What type of collaboration goes into creating community guidelines?
Emergency declarations require many conversations with a lot of local officials and other stakeholders. Early on, a lot of that happened very quickly. It also involves looking at other parts of the state and across the country. Those decisions require a lot of input and synthesizing of information. Early on, we had some rough patches and there are certainly things I’d probably go back and do differently, but overall our community has been supportive.
What causes the most difficulty in making decisions?
There is a disparity in information at all levels of government. According to the CDC, Stillwater should be in the red, but it is orange by the state of Oklahoma numbers. I understand that it may be frustrating to understand all of the different information that is available.
What keeps you up at night?
Right now, I spend most of my time thinking about how we can get more of the community pushing in the same direction. Many folks think it’s time to stop, that the side effects have been too onerous. There’s the fatigue that all of us have experienced … we’re tired of it. So I think a lot about how we communicate and lead in a way that helps people push in the right direction, to work together and move forward to keep everyone safe.
Denise Webber, President and CEO, Stillwater Medical Center
From a health care provider perspective, how is the local situation going?
We are currently caring for people with coronavirus in our hospitals while also working closely with local and state agencies to monitor and test for the COVID-19 virus in our region. Over the last 30 days, Stillwater and Payne County have experienced a significant increase in positive novel coronavirus cases. Payne County is currently now fourth in the state for active cases. Increased testing and contact tracing can help identify those who may carry the virus. We’ve seen that symptoms vary and that some patients may even be completely asymptomatic. The primary way to help contain the spread is for everyone to be part of the effort to help limit exposures in our area.
What’s your No. 1 concern?
My No. 1 concern is the health and wellness of our community members. Having bed capacity and staff to care for those who need us is vital. We have spent months preparing for the possible influx of COVID patients while still providing care for non-COVID patients. Currently, we are seeing an influx of patients both COVID-positive and non-COVID that we did not experience in the spring. While the majority of patients needing care are not COVID-positive, this increase still drives the need for more bed capacity and health care staff. Within the last month with the increased demand, at any given day or hour, we could be at or near bed capacity for both COVID and non-COVID patients.
What do we as a community need to be thinking about next?
We need to do what Oklahomans do best … take care of our neighbors. That spirit of being neighborly is what has kept most of us tied to Oklahoma, and this pandemic is definitely a period of time for us to come together and work toward helping each other. This is a very tough time for so many reasons, and there are a lot of unknowns right now. We do know that we can help each other by masking up, watching our distance from others, avoiding large social gatherings and washing our hands often.
What message would you give the local community about the hospital’s role and what you as health care providers need from us?
Our hospital’s role has been as a member of a local team that is doing its best to collaborate and respond to this novel situation. Payne County Health Department, the City of Stillwater, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater Public Schools, Stillwater Medical Center and many others have spent countless hours closely collaborating in an effort to protect the citizens of north central Oklahoma. Stillwater Medical Center’s major role is to educate our community about how to prevent the spread of COVID and to care for and treat those who do become infected and need care. We very much appreciate our communities’ efforts, support and continued patience as we continue to learn and respond to this pandemic.
Dr. Marc Moore, Superintendent, Stillwater Public Schools
As the superintendent of a public school district, what have been some of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make thus far?
It’s been difficult balancing health and safety with all of the other needs that students and families have. Multiple perspectives from community members and staff mean we’re not only balancing a difficult decision, but doing so in an environment where the comfort level of attending or working in a school during a pandemic varies greatly from individual to individual.
What has been the decision-making process for SPS? Who’s involved?
SPS engages multiple stakeholders in the process when making complex decisions, and we held true to this value during the pandemic. Multiple meetings and conversations occurred, including with local health officials and professionals, teachers, administrators and parents.
Is there a story you’d like to share from the last few months that really stands out as something that impacted your decision making?
Meeting for six hours with students who had been protesting really opened my eyes to their thoughts during the pandemic. Like everyone, they are dealing with uncertainty and hard times and are wanting to understand the issues so they can work through them. It was inspiring to see how our students are thinking and responding to this pandemic.
School is now back on an A/B schedule. How is that going so far?
Right now, well, I’m really proud of the efforts in place. We will have a better idea how increased social distancing will impact our ability to educate students during an alternate schedule in the coming weeks. Our teachers and staff have gone above and beyond during this pandemic, and their commitment to implementing an alternate schedule after completing so much previous work on distance learning is commendable.
What would you like the local community to know from the perspective of your role?
While we may have different perspectives and different thoughts about how to approach this pandemic, we all have the same goal: educating students in a safe environment. If we continue to come together, show grace and patience toward each other, and work toward the betterment of children, I think we will reflect back with amazement on how our efforts positively impacted students during this time.
Chris Barlow, Senior Director of University Health Services, Oklahoma State University
Describe a day in the life of managing a pandemic for a university.
There is really not a typical pattern or rhythm to any day when you are in the midst of a pandemic. I think that’s something we’ve all come to terms with as a leadership group. I’ve been amazed at how leadership from all areas of campus have stepped up and taken on a tremendous amount of work and challenge in navigating this trying time. It really speaks to our culture here at OSU of showing determination and poise in the face of adversity. My role within all of this is to help organize the work being done, to be the bridge between campus partners and the public health department, and to provide our senior leadership with as much detailed information as possible to help them make the best decisions for our campus.
What have been some of the most challenging events thus far?
There were definitely some challenging moments and decisions in the early stages of the pandemic as we had to rapidly shift campus operations. Fortunately, we’ve had great support throughout all of the planning process from our local and state health department and from other community partners. As we worked with leaders from across campus to come up with our Cowboys Coming Back Plan, one challenge was coming up with an effective communication strategy to help deliver the plan and to update community members on any changes to the plan as new public health directives surfaced. I think overall we’ve achieved our goal of creating a campus framework that positions ourselves for a chance at success. We’ve learned a lot over time and have tried to be flexible and adaptable. From an operations perspective, we have been able to identify needs and resources to form a measured response. We continue to grow and evolve with all of our efforts as part of a refinement process.
How do you think it’s going on campus now?
I’m always hesitant to give my overall opinion on how things are going because it’s reflective of a moment in time, and things can quickly change. We want to continue to see a downward trend in active case numbers. Since the start of the semester, we’ve been able to effectively keep up with testing, contact tracing and demand for campus quarantine space. There has also been good adherence to public health practices within classroom space and elsewhere on campus. We ask that everyone continue to stay diligent in adhering to public health guidance moving forward.
Kelli Rader, Regional Administrative Director, Oklahoma State Department of Health
Give us an example of what managing a pandemic looks like for your team at Payne County Health Department.
Throughout the pandemic my staff and I have worked hand-in-hand with OSU Health Services, Stillwater Medical Center and our community partners in planning, response (testing, investigations, contact tracing, guidance), data collection and analysis as well as communications. We provide information to one another quickly and seamlessly. Without the rapid reporting and communication of our local partners, investigations of cases of disease and contacts to those cases would be delayed and place the community at greater risk. Recently I was contacted by one of our local partners regarding numerous positive cases in a residential community. The notification came late on a Friday evening, but because the notification was made so quickly, the Payne County Health Department was able to begin working with our partners on the investigations immediately. We were able to provide guidance, recommendations and work through the cases over the weekend which decreased the likelihood that others were exposed to disease.
How is your team working to meet that challenge?
Since February, the Payne County Health Department has worked hand-in-hand with our community partners to address various aspects of the pandemic response. Before disease was really even being seen in the community, the health department was working with our partners in response, planning and educating the community on COVID-19 through a variety of platforms. Since that time, the health department’s role has evolved to include testing, case investigation, contact tracing, community education and serving as a resource by providing CDC and Oklahoma State Department of Health guidance and recommendations to local businesses, schools and community partners. Not only have we been focused on the response effort at hand but we are also looking ahead and instituting plans for mass vaccination for COVID-19 in the future.
What “shout-outs” would you give to local partners and/or individuals who have been helpful throughout the pandemic?
The Payne County Health Department has received great support from both public and private partners throughout the pandemic. While COVID-19 has been challenging to say the least, it has also allowed us the opportunity to build upon and create a greater network of partnerships that otherwise may not have existed. The mayor’s COVID-19 Communication Taskforce is a perfect example, consisting of representatives from the city of Stillwater, Stillwater Emergency Management, Stillwater Public Schools, OSU, Stillwater Medical Center and the Payne County Health Department. This taskforce has met regularly throughout the pandemic to discuss issues and create consistent messaging for the community. The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma has partnered with us to host drive-thru testing events. The National Guard continues to be an invaluable partner assisting on a daily basis with everything from traffic control to testing and contact tracing and everything in between. Cities, emergency managers, businesses, community coalitions and schools across Payne County are vital partners in sharing resources and guidance, ensuring their policies are aligned for the safety of the residents they serve and doing their part to help slow the spread of disease in their communities. The past few months of the pandemic have been challenging times for Payne County, but they have truly reiterated and spotlighted the importance of public and private partnerships in every community.