Nearly eight months after the pandemic began, Oklahoma's skyrocketing COVID cases have led to one of the highest infection rates in the US. Despite repeated claims about reopening going well, COVID being the new normal and hospital capacity being sufficient for demand, our infection rate says something very different. We are not just high for Oklahoma since this started, or even the US, because if Oklahoma were a country (one about the size of Norway actually), we'd have the highest per capita infection rate on the planet. Yet another top 10 that Gov. Kevin Stitt can hang his hat on.
There is no kind way to put this. The US has completely fucked up the COVID response and somehow, even within that context, Oklahoma is becoming a far negative outlier within the broader disaster. By taking public health as a suggestion vs a mandate or adopting a clear, anti-virus strategy, Oklahoma has bargained away time and efforts that could have saved hundreds of lives and prevented thousands from getting so sick they require hospitalization. Instead, we've used that time to boost the Governor's ego with endless, meaningless press conferences full of deceptive information. We've train wrecked the economy by shutting down, then not taking the public health measures to stop the pandemic and reopening prematurely. Finally, we've allowed public officials at nearly every level to continue to do the bare minimum to even attempt to keep people safe.
On the private sector side, corporations immediately circled the wagons and fired everyone they could, leading to an unemployment rate double what other countries are experiencing. While the average citizen is expected to have six months of savings, many corporations didn't have six days worth savings after shutdowns were announced. They are turning around now to beg the government to exempt them from liability in protecting people for COVID and asking for access to every sort of handout imaginable while continuing to frown on many public health initiatives that fight the virus or unemployment for all the people they fired at the first sign of trouble. Due to our oil reliant economy, Oklahoma is faced with the double whammy of skyrocketing cases during an active pandemic and the loss of a lot of the good jobs we had in the oil and gas sector. Add to this the months long struggle to get people their unemployment benefit and now, we are cutting off or reducing the support which will only exacerbate the economic damage and spread it further.
But back to the pandemic response. Somehow, people are still arguing about this. Gov. Stitt posted a back to work video that remains mindlessly optimistic and still downplays the reality on the ground. But our Governor has some math problems. There is no objective measure by which you can argue the US or Oklahoma has weathered this in a remotely successful way. Despite the fact dozens and dozens of countries, some with populations 20x as large, have less daily infections than a state with 4 million people, we are still arguing that what is happening is an acceptable loss or what happens when you test a lot or the new normal or what living with COVID looks like. This is absurd.
To put it in context, Oklahoma is approaching an infection rate of 250 new cases per million people of population per day (250/million/day), or 1,000 cases per day for our 4 million person population. As mentioned, if we were a country, we'd have the highest infection rate on the planet at the moment. In fact, eight months into this, our rate is 10x higher than nearly every country in Europe. Taken over time, our rate of infection in Oklahoma is worse than any European country averaged at any point during the pandemic by almost DOUBLE. Most European countries throughout the entire pandemic have never recorded a single day where they had an infection rate of more than 100 new cases per million people (for us that'd be 500 cases per day). We are averaging almost 250/million/day for a week and could go higher given the zero response from the Governor and the continued confusion from many others about what we should do to control this.
Despite the argument by some, that folks are exaggerating the risks, the fact is, we are definitely understating it. For one, many people don't or can't get tested. They may even get very sick but don't, for whatever reason, get tested. Second, due to the high infection rate, our testing and tracing is completely overwhelmed. Even with people who do want and get tests, it often takes days if not a week or more to get results back, meaning people don't know if they should quarantine or not. We also don't know as quickly what activities or businesses might be leading to spikes in infection. We are flying blind. Lastly, deaths are a tricky thing to track. Study after study is showing that once the dust settles, in communities that are hit hard, there are many excess deaths above normal or even above the reported COVID numbers. COVID kills people and we don't even know it. On current trends for the US, COVID is already a top 5 killer compared to all causes, by the end of the year, it could be gunning for the top spot. Imagine treating cancer with the same level of disregard we seem to have about COVID and we know exactly how to beat this virus, stop the spread!
Beyond deaths, we now have a lot of data about who gets sick and how sick they get. I don't know about you, but a 5-10 day hospital stay at an average cost of $4,000 per day sounds pretty freaking terrible and many may wish they were dead after getting the bill. While dying might not be the highest probability, hospitalization rates are odds many wouldn't take. If you are over 65, it could be as high as 17%, 50-64 is still 7%, under 50 it drops, but those rates are high enough that hospitals get overwhelmed when relatively few people have the disease.
The graph above shows our hospitalizations since mid-June. What it shows is more people are entering and staying in the hospital than are leaving. Even at a new infection rate half where we are today, hospitals were starting to fill up in late June/early July. This trend only accelerates at 1,000 cases per day. Deaths and hospitalizations are lagging indicators meaning you don't see the full impact for weeks after infections spike. While the pandemic doesn't have to hit Florida levels, if it just hovers at this level, over time hospitals will get overwhelmed as more people are entering than leave every single day.
Every day the bad arguments become more absurd. Take testing. While the US does test more than many countries, it is only slightly more per million people than at least a dozen countries and we have many times the number of positive cases. There are countries like Canada, the UK, Australia, Russia, Denmark and others that are between 1/2 and 1 to 1 with our testing rate per million people and most of them have 1/10 the number of positives cases per million people coming back. This means from a COVID mitigation stand point, nearly all of the countries highlighted above are doing between 5x-100x better at controlling the virus than we are. Denmark is testing at almost the same rate we are (2,200 vs 2,400 tests per million) and finding 6.5 positive cases and the USA is finding 201 (as mentioned Oklahoma is finding almost 250/million). Australia is right at our testing rate and finding 14 cases per million people.
We have to get control of this. Our response so far, like many persistent problems in this country, is to slap a bandaid on it and then get mad when it doesn't stay on or the other more serious injury reveals itself. If the economy doesn't make sense with low to medium COVID (think bars, restaurants, planes, concerts, many workers out for weeks waiting on tests or getting sick, etc), it makes zero sense if hospitals are maxed on capacity and people with routine illnesses are getting delayed or turned away and die in excess numbers. While other countries are transitioning to aggressively keeping the lid on small, localized outbreaks, we are dealing with a constant stream of very sick individuals covering half the country. In a short time, evictions, bankruptcies and serious, long term disruptions are about to happen to the labor and business market.
There are also many societal impacts. Mental health and families are incredibly stressed by all this. People are missing their parents and grandparents. Children are missing their friends. While many feel they can rule out their own demise by this disease, the elderly really cannot. A full third of Oklahomans over 65 end up in the hospital for this and more than 10% die. My parents have been over 65 for more than 7 years now and are healthy enough to last many more. I don't feel a powerful need to test that theory with them getting COVID. Forcing them to stay home for the next 12-24 months because I can't skip leg day or a trip to the bar for a couple months to beat this back is insanely selfish. All these other countries are on the same timeline we are and they're done with the worst of it but not us!
We have to demand better of our political leaders, public health officials and institutional leaders. Instead of having clear, unified communication, we have chaos. It isn't just the President. Gov. Stitt is his own man and lies about everything all the time, and he gets a bunch of his CEO bros to play their part in the spectacle! He'll quote one or two out of context statistics that prove his point while ignoring the other twenty that do not. He gets a seemingly willing cast of executives, part-time military and business leaders to repeat the company line. They need to stop. Stitt isn't Trump no matter how much he wants to be. This applies to the local level too. If there is something you can be doing to mitigate COVID or fight the virus, do it! We don't need to wait for Trump, Stitt, Fox News or QAnon to sign off. We need the people tasked with gathering and understanding the plethora of information we have about how to fight the virus to protect people and implement policies. If the best time to start was yesterday, the second best time is today.