‘Frontier’ investigative report probes Stitt’s early response to COVID-19 pandemic, Governor responds

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – An investigative report from The Frontier took an extensive inside look at Gov. Kevin Stitt’s early handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

The report – titled ‘Confusion, defiance and focus on ‘personal responsibility’ shaped Gov. Stitt’s initial pandemic response – was written by reporter Ben Felder after combing through over 7,000 emails and listening to hours of audio.

In one piece of audio from March 23, Stitt questions the feasibility of maintaining his Shelter in Place executive order until December.

“Let’s say we did Shelter in Place. We’ve got 81 positive cases. When do we lift Shelter in Place? How long do we keep that going? Because if the epidemiologist and the graph shows that we’re going to peak in August or September or December, which are really scenarios that we’re looking at, I don’t think it’s feasible to do Shelter in Place through August or December or even January,” Stitt said.

Stitt said in the audio from March that the pandemic would peak in either August, September or December. However, Stitt said publicly in early April that the virus could peak by late April.

KFOR News 4 contacted the governor’s office the day after our original report aired. KFOR asked for an interview with the governor which was denied but his office sent this statement:

The governor’s call with the Legislature took place just three weeks after the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in Oklahoma. The consensus from modeling experts at that time projected hospitals would exceed capacity by thousands of patients in April, which did not prove to be correct. Other models projected later peaks but were also inaccurate in estimating more than 10,000 deaths by Labor Day.

The governor has reminded Oklahomans for months that COVID-19 will be in the United States and in Oklahoma until there is a widespread vaccine and that we must continue to protect our most vulnerable while managing the pandemic’s other harmful effects to mental health, the education of our children and our economy.

Charlie Hannema, Chief of Communications, Office of Gov. Kevin Stitt

KFOR asked the Governor’s office why more drastic steps weren’t taken to slow the spread of the virus, like a mask mandate, when the numbers appeared to be heading in the wrong direction. 

Again, our request for an interview with Governor Stitt was denied and we were sent the following statement.

On March 23, Oklahoma had 81 positive cases and the country was eight days into the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread.” The initial shutdown measures were implemented to preserve and acquire PPE for health care workers as well as buy time to build testing capacity for a novel virus and learn how it affected Oklahomans. Today, 241 days later, the State has developed a robust testing infrastructure, replenished the PPE stockpile and our medical community has made substantial progress in learning which patients are most at risk and how to treat cases of COVID-19. We’ve also learned about the significant negative effects lockdowns have on mental health, substance abuse and addiction, domestic violence and many other areas of our lives.

It is grossly irresponsible to suggest the circumstances surrounding the management of this pandemic are exactly the same as they were 241 days ago, just days after Oklahoma’s first positive case.

The model the governor was referencing as a mere point of context — that some at your station appear to be so desperately clinging to in hopes that would be a smoking gun — projected that more than 1.7 million Oklahomans would have had symptomatic cases of COVID-19 with 13,524 deaths by today’s date, which is hardly an accurate representation for Oklahomans to base decisions on for the last eight months.

Charlie Hannema, Chief of Communications, Office of Gov. Kevin Stitt

Felder obtained the audio, along with the thousands of emails, through an open records request.

Stitt issued 19 executive orders concerning COVID-19. An order that related to elective surgeries caused some confusion.

“There were times he was on a call with doctors who were saying his order banning elective surgeries in an effort to save medical supplies and capacity at hospitals was confusing; that there were patients that were requiring surgery for breast cancer or a tumor or heart blockages that because of his order were told they were going to have to postpone their surgery,” Felder said. “When the governor was told about that, it was shocking to him; he said to the doctors, ‘I didn’t think my order would stop these people from having surgery.’”

The report also covers Stitt’s discussion about COVID-19 as it pertains to restaurants, churches and maintaining the economy.

To read the full report, go to The Frontier website.

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