Stecklein photo

OKLAHOMA CITY — When news quickly spread across the Capitol that an unidentified Senate employee tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, I wondered if I needed to be tested or self-isolate inside my home.

After all, I office full-time in the Capitol pressroom located just down the hallway from three state senators and the House minority leader. In recent days, I’ve ridden elevators with legislators and staff, navigated crammed hallways filled with hundreds of people and stood just an arm's length away from lawmakers and their staffs when interviewing them about legislation.

In other words, social distancing wasn’t part of my vocabulary.

I wasn’t exhibiting any concerning symptoms that would seemingly require immediate testing, so I decided to give the state’s highly publicized COVID-19 hotline a ring to see if they could provide some general guidance.

As it turns out, I’m not the only Oklahoman utilizing the call line right now.

David Ostrowe, the state secretary for digital transformation and administration, said the call center has been averaging 500 calls per half hour.

“The call volume is just tremendous,” he said this week. “We’re hyper-focused on bringing those times down. And if someone drops off (we want it to be) because they got the information and not because they were frustrated with the wait.”

Some Oklahomans are experiencing wait times in excess of an hour. And, not everyone is using the phone line for its intended purpose — to get useful information about the virus spreading across the state.

“We’re getting a tremendous amount of, ‘I got laid off because of the virus. What are you doing for me?’ (questions),” Ostrowe said. “We have people calling the (state) Health Department because they’ve been laid off and they want unemployment insurance.”

Other callers want to sue because they’re sick. Some callers are just lonely.

My wait time on a Tuesday afternoon was much shorter than an hour, though. I only listened about 3 and a half minutes of pre-recorded messages designed to educate me about COVID-19.

One message explained how COVID-19 is spread through person-to-person contact within six feet of me — through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Another explained that coronavirus symptoms — fever, cough and shortness of breath — may not appear until 2 to 14 days after exposure.

Another encouraged frequent hand-washing or use of hand sanitizer and avoidance of sick people.

Then a woman came on the line to try to help gauge my exposure risk. Did being in such close proximity to a confirmed case warrant a visit to my primary care doctor to get tested?

She quickly walked me through the current six-step criteria for testing people.

• Confirmed close contact with an individual who has tested positive. That typically means 10 minutes time spent within 6 feet of a person. (Probably not.)

• Traveled outside the state within the last 14 days and now have a fever, cough and shortness of breath. (Nope.)

• Already hospitalized with symptoms. (Nope.)

• Exhibiting symptoms and have a chronic health condition like heart or lung disease, diabetes or asthma. (Nope.)

• Am a health care provider who cared for a positive case. (Nope.)

• Am a health care provider with symptoms. (Nope).

Just a day later, that testing criteria narrowed even more due to testing kit shortages. Officials were limiting dwindling tests to vulnerable Oklahomans and health care workers who might be sick.

State Epidemiologist Laurence Burnsed later explained during a press briefing that public health officials contact everyone classified as “close personal contacts.” Those are considered people who were within 6 feet of a person for at least 10 minutes cumulative time. They’re advised to quarantine, meaning stay home and limit movements in public spaces for 14 days after their last exposure.

Other individuals that could have been in casual contact — like moving around the same area, walking by or having brief conversations — would not be at increased risk. So, there are not specific movement restrictions placed on people like me.

In other words, based on the criteria, I don’t qualify for testing or quarantine.

I ultimately used their guidance and decided forego testing. But, I am now embracing social distancing whenever possible.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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