OKLAHOMA CITY — Even as Oklahoma’s governor continues to resist calls to implement a statewide mask mandate, Oklahoma’s lead disease expert said an intensive study of the state’s mask-mandated communities found face covering usage significantly slows the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Jared Taylor, the state epidemiologist, said he partnered with Oklahoma State University to conduct an intensive comparison of the transmission and fatality rate of COVID-19 cases in areas with and without mask mandates.
The researchers examined transmission and fatality rates 30 days prior to the implementation of mask requirements up to 70 days after the implementation.
Taylor said their study found that while face covering requirements don’t make COVID-19 completely disappear, mask mandates completely changed the trajectory of the deadly virus. Municipalities that instituted requirements experienced much lower fatality rates and transmission rates beginning about seven days after implementation.
“(Cases) are increasing, but they’ve been at a lower rate of increase and more controlled than in communities that don’t have those mandates,” he said.
Taylor said he decided to probe the issue because clearly “it is a critical policymaking decision.”
“It is something that we want to be science-informed and when those leaders are considering instituting a mask mandate, we wanted to give them as much information as possible to make that decision in as informed a manner as possible,” Taylor said.
When the study wrapped up about two weeks ago, 18 — mostly urban — communities had mask mandates in place. While Taylor said that’s not a lot of municipalities, he said those mandates cover a large portion of Oklahoma’s population, including major metropolitan areas like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater.
Oklahoma is just one of 13 states that has not implemented a statewide policy that requires face coverings in public. New Hampshire, Iowa and North Dakota have all issued orders in recent days, according to analysis by the AARP.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma’s top executive, is doubling down on his refusal to implement a statewide mask mandate, repeatedly referring to the term as “the magic word.”
“Wear a mask,” he said Thursday. “You need to print that instead of always asking about the magic word. Over 50% of our state is under a mask mandate.”
He said Thursday that he believes mask mandates are unenforceable, and said he doesn’t believe in a one-size fits all approach.
“I believe it’s not about magic words,” Stitt said. “It’s about compliance and social distancing — those sorts of things.”
He did not say if he’d ever consider adopting a mandate.
Stitt has long said he wants to leave masking requirement decisions to local school boards and municipal leaders. Many leaders, though, have been resistant to mandate face coverings despite growing scientific evidence about their effectiveness.
Stitt said his chief of staff has reached out to some cities, suggesting they’ll support places even if they choose not to mandate masks.
“The municipalities appreciate that local control,” Stitt said.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said data shows that COVID-19 transmission in communities without mask mandates is considerably worse than in Oklahoma City, which has long had a face covering requirement.
“Why wouldn’t that whole state want to enjoy that same benefit?” he asked.
He said polling has shown that well over 70% of Oklahomans support mask mandates.
“It can be a loud vocal minority,” he said. “I actually don’t think there’s a lot of resistance.”
Hospitals, meanwhile, have been inundated in recent days with growing numbers of COVID-19 patients, many who live in non-mask mandated communities. On Friday, the state reported 2,921 new cases, 15 more deaths, and 1,428 hospitalizations.
Holt, a Republican, said COVID-19 is so widespread right now, that if someone enters a room with 25 people, odds are someone is going to be sick with COVID.
“I don’t even know your friends, but right now, I’m going to tell you based on the city’s numbers, your friends have the ‘rona,” Holt said.
While he can’t speak for Guymon or Idabel, Holt said the central Oklahoma City region would welcome a mask requirement issued at the state level.
“I’m not necessarily thinking that’s coming,” he said. “(But) I would certainly praise that were that ever done.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.