Gov. Kevin Stitt failed all Oklahomans and breached his duty by withholding vital information he should have acted on and — at a minimum — shared with local decision-makers.
The state's chief executive kept secret for more than a month his receipt of weekly reports generated by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Those reports revealed with stark detail the county-by-county impact of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, which became what the White House described as a "red-zone state" after it experienced a resurgence in new cases that coincided with the governor's plan to re-open businesses.
During the first six months of this pandemic, the Stitt administration did not include positive results from rapid antigen tests from its daily tally of new cases even though that is the widely adopted standard. It used statistics selectively — being overly exclusive with the dates of deaths and overly inclusive on the availability of hospital facilities — and made it more difficult to accurately assess the extent and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the governor persistently pushed private-sector businesses back to full capacity, many state offices remained closed to the public. Under the governor's watch, many public-sector employees continue to telecommute — they remained "safer at home" while he denied leaders of municipalities, counties and schools of information they needed to protect public health within their communities.
Of course, the governor's office rejected criticism about his administration's lack of transparency, citing an A-plus rating from the COVID Tracking Project for data transparency. Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema said the governor has been as honest and transparent as possible, and his administration releases detailed county-level data and specific guidance for elected officials.
That was news to members of the Muskogee City-County Coronavirus Task Force, which was assembled in March to craft a local mitigation plan in the absence of a unified response led by federal or state officials. The task force sent a letter to the governor, expressing their frustration with the lack of information and leadership provided by the governor during this pandemic.
The letter was sent after the Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported an outbreak of more than 700 new COVID-19 cases at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft. Local task force members cited the difficulty of enforcing local mandates when commuters contribute to a 50% increase in the city's daytime population as an example for the need of leadership at the state level.
Oklahomans must demand transparency from all elected leaders, but it is imperative that the governor provide complete and accurate information during a public health crisis. If he continues to yield to political pressure at our expense, then it is up to local leaders in the public and private sectors to take the steps necessary to protect the health of our community and move forward safely.