A state representative said a federal health official only had time to take five or six questions during a highly touted stop Sunday in Oklahoma.
State Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, who was in attendance, said the meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx started about 20 minutes late. He said Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, only answered a handful of questions before she had to leave. The roundtable was held in a question-and-answer format where the people in attendance were encouraged to ask Birx questions, he said.
Sunday's meeting at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa consisted of Birx, Gov. Kevin Stitt and 14 other state and health officials, Stitt’s press release said. The discussion was closed to the media and public.
McEntire said Birx wanted to make sure that Oklahoma's Executive Branch and health department were planning for another surge in COVID-19 cases.
“They’ve been watching the southern states really well,” McEntire said. “They think we seem to be lagging [behind] those southern states by about four weeks. They wanted to be sure we had plans in place to deal with another surge, if it occurred. Because if we continue that trend of lagging four weeks behind other southern states, then we could have another surge.”
McEntire said the state Department of Education crafted plans for another surge, but he had not seen any of the other plans Monday.
McEntire said Birx went over those plans with Stitt and Dr. Lance Frye, the interim commissioner of health, before the roundtable discussion.
“[Birx] said to us that she had gone over the plans. … She thought that their plans were acceptable, and that they were good plans,” McEntire said.
Although Birx didn’t make any suggestions, McEntire said she “certainly advocated the use of masks.”
“I asked a question about masks,” McEntire said. “She offered some good advice there, saying that the universities should be doing studies on masks.”
McEntire said the Health Department showed him a study showing that cities with mask mandates recorded a 49% drop in new COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, cities without a mask mandate only had a 25-28% drop.
“There’s a certain subset that [believes COVID-19] is all made up, and it will all go away after the election in November,” he said. “And, there’s a larger subset that [has] a real problem with masks and their efficacy, so I was addressing that."
In a press release, Gov. Stitt said Birx was very complimentary of the state’s testing plans and what Oklahoma is doing with its universities.
“I had Secretary of Science and Innovation Elizabeth Pollard discussing our strategy, and Dr. Birx said she’s going to take that back with her and share some of it with the other states she is visiting,” Stitt said.
McEntire said he did not hear Birx say she was going to share some of their plans with other states.
“I didn’t hear that statement, that may have been something they talked about together,” he said. “But, she said that she had gone over our plans, and they thought they were really good, and that we were ready if [another surge] happens.”
The Tulsa World reported that officials who were present in the meeting said Birx advocated for the necessity of masks and social distancing in public.
In today’s meeting: @realDrBirx explained that she’s “asking people to change their behavior to protect others.” Added that “Oklahoma is about 4 weeks behind the South” and needs to “avoid asymptonatic spread which is happening in Southern states.” #OklaEd pic.twitter.com/XJXEPK16lD— Joy Hofmeister (@joy4ok) August 17, 2020
“In today’s meeting: [Birx] explained that she’s ‘asking people to change their behavior to protect others.’ Added that ‘Oklahoma is about 4 weeks behind the South’ and needs to ‘avoid [asymptomatic] spread which is happening in Southern states,’” Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said Sunday in a tweet.
State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, said he does not agree with the closed-door aspect of the meeting.
“Democrats were not even given an opportunity to participate [in the meeting],” Bennett said. “But it’s more than that. Legislators from the other side of the aisle get to sit in on stuff like this all the time, and what we do with the information we learn there varies from person to person. For all of the things this state has done wrong, Oklahoma’s press has done an incredible job covering all of it and to keep them from being there just baffles me.”
Bennett said Birx has made similar visits to other states, and those meetings were made public.
Bennett said he does not know why the meeting was kept private.
“In my estimation, we’re not doing nearly enough based on the facts on the ground,” Bennett said. “My guess is that, for his administration, controlling the narrative is very important, and I am not at all defending that, I’m upset about it.”
Bennett said he suspects Birx made recommendations.
“This is her job, all day every day, to explore how to mitigate what’s going on and prevent further spread and to come to a state like Oklahoma’s,” Bennett said. “Sure, the numbers in the last couple days have taken a turn in the right direction, (but) overall we’re sitting at over 650 Oklahomans dead and thousands who’ve had the virus. … To me, if any more than zero is the number of deaths that are happening every day, there should be some recommendations.”
State Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, said he is not sure why the meeting was held in private.
“My request would be that after the information [from the meeting] is looked at, we make sure to have a public forum and maybe release some information so people could know,” Standridge said. “I don’t know what the rationale is, so I don’t want to criticize it. But I would encourage us to get that information out to the public as soon as possible.”
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