Oklahoma reported the fourth-highest rate of test positivity for COVID-19 in the country in the seven-day period ending Friday, the White House Coronavirus Task Force said in its latest report, which again urged the state to take further action to slow the virus’ spread.

Since the last report, conditions in Oklahoma have worsened, and the task force said the state is in the red zone for its outbreak, determined by its rate of new cases and test positivity.

“Oklahoma has seen an increase in new cases and an increase in test positivity over the last week,” according to the White House report, which was dated Sunday.

Oklahoma, which has been in the red zone for its case growth for almost two months, reported 146 new cases per 100,000 people during the one-week period, compared to the national average of 88 new cases, according to the report.

Though the state was in the yellow zone for test positivity in the task force’s Aug. 30 report, Oklahoma is now in the red zone, the report says, indicating a rate above 10%.

Oklahoma’s test positivity rate was at 11.3% last week, according to the task force report. The White House and World Health Organization call for a rate of below 5%.

In the report, Garfield County fell from fourth- to sixth-highest in number of new cases in Oklahoma, as both Muskogee and Payne counties saw huge surges in new positive COVID-19 cases over the last week.

Both Garfield County and the city of Enid remain in the state report's red zone for the fifth week in a row.

The state started including probable and suspected cases in its daily COVID-19 case numbers on Tuesday, but the White House’s analysis excludes those cases.

Charlie Hannema, a spokesman for Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office, said the case and test positivity data cited in the report was “significantly affected” by an outbreak in Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft, where the virus spread rapidly in recent weeks and more than 730 women have been infected.

Hannema, in an emailed statement, said the data is “not an accurate representation of the statewide conditions.”

Oklahoma State Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

Some in-person schooling begins

Colleges and universities entered their fall semesters in recent weeks, and infectious disease experts warned last month the start of the school year could bring a spike of new coronavirus cases.

Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and the University of Oklahoma in Norman, both of which offer in-person instruction, have reported hundreds of cases so far.

Universities should increase testing capacity, and the state should require universities and colleges to develop rapid testing and contact tracing of students with COVID-19 symptoms, according to the report. Institutions also should conduct periodic surveillance, it said.

Several weeks ago, OU implemented a plan to test wastewater for COVID-19 specimens, which is now a part of the university’s surveillance plan, according to NonDoc, a nonprofit journalism outlet.

Meanwhile, OSU tracks where students and staff are on campus in an effort to slow viral spread.

Cases rise from August

Oklahoma reported about 830 new daily cases over a seven-day average on Wednesday, compared to an average of 754 new cases on Sept. 2, according to an analysis of state health data by The Frontier. The seven-day rolling average is used to deemphasize daily swings and outliers in the data

The average peaked at 1,093 new daily cases on Aug. 1, but the average fell to 645 new cases by Aug. 28. In the last week, Oklahoma reported 5,811 cases, up 10% compared to the week before.

There were 24 counties in the red zone last week, according to the latest report, compared to the Aug. 30 report that listed 18 counties in the red zone.

Hospitalizations in Oklahoma have decreased from a peak of 663 on July 28 to 462 patients as of Tuesday.

Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 876 new cases and nine net new deaths on Wednesday. Oklahoma has reported almost 66,000 coronavirus cases and more than 860 deaths since the pandemic started.

Call for more mask mandates

Beginning in August, the White House recommendations started to urge Oklahoma to implement a statewide mask mandate.

The latest report calls for a mask requirement in metro areas and counties with COVID-19 cases among K-12 students and teachers.

While many schools started the year online, several, particularly in rural areas, opted for in-person learning.

More than 180 school districts in Oklahoma have reported COVID-19 cases, according to StateImpact Oklahoma.

Though more than a dozen city governments have implemented mask mandates, Stitt has refused to issue one statewide.

Hannema said the governor’s position that masks are not a “one-size-fits-all solution” has not changed.

Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye issued a public health advisory on Aug. 13 that in part recommended face coverings for those over 11 years old in counties with an elevated rate of new cases.

The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org. Staff writer Alexander Ewald contributed to this story.

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