Oklahomans deserve state leadership

Our friends, family members, and neighbors are needlessly dying  

During the second weekend in December, Oklahoma crossed a grim milestone as the COVID-19 death toll reached more than 2,000. By April 1, 2021, it is projected that 3,355 Oklahomans, or nearly 1 in every 1,000, will have died, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. And while a vaccine should be available in coming months, without a comprehensive state response, new cases could climb to 8,000 daily and the total death count could more than double by January.   

These despair-inducing numbers are even worse in communities of color. American Indians are 3.5 times more likely to get COVID-19 and 5.3 times more likely to be hospitalized than white people. Black and Latinx people are two and three times more likely to die, respectively. These disparities don’t exist because of personal choices or genetic differences. They are the results of systemic factors: people of color are more likely to be uninsured, live in multi-generational homes, and work in ‘essential’ industries that put them at greater risk of exposure.     

We are losing nurses, teachers, grandparents, children, friends, family members, and loved ones to preventable deaths. State leaders, however, can drastically change these outcomes and save hundreds or thousands of Oklahomans. We can still ease the burden on hospitals and save countless lives by de-politicizing things like masks and gathering restrictions, listening to experts, and providing targeted relief to those most impacted.

The recession is impacting some Oklahomans far more than others 

Mitigating the pandemic by introducing certain restrictions and the personal choices many are making to stay home are contributing to the recession, but the economy won’t begin to recover until the pandemic is under control. While these choices are the right steps to improve public health, they are also harming some people more than others. In Oklahoma, groups who have experienced a substantial loss of employment income include younger folks, people of color, those with less education, who are unmarried, and who make less than $35,000 annually. 

This loss of income is impacting families’ basic needs. In the week ending November 23, 35 percent of households making less than $25,000 annually, and 35 percent of Black respondents, reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the last seven days. While these numbers are staggering, data on several other groups are unavailable, and the harm in other marginalized communities is likely just as bad. Additionally, specific indicators may seem to change substantially from week to week due to survey constraints, sampling size, and weekly changes in response rates. However, it is clear that Oklahomans are struggling, and that struggle is hurting some more than others. 

The state must take steps to assist those most impacted. Waiting to address these issues will be more expensive in the long-term. It is vital that state leaders take action now to mitigate this crisis, as its impacts will likely linger for years and create long-term inequities: 

Economic recovery isn’t feasible until the virus is under control  

The state must also work to safely speed up economic recovery. The choice between healthy citizens and a strong economy is a false one, because the economy likely won’t begin recovering until the virus is under control. Since economic recovery depends on consumer comfort, a mask mandate could actually stimulate the economy by making people safer venturing out. A mandate, combined with Gov. Stitt’s recent decision to limit indoor capacity to 50 percent, could place Oklahoma on a quicker path to economic recovery.  

These state measures will be less effective without targeted federal support. Limiting indoor capacity for businesses could be detrimental without additional federal assistance that has been stalled in negotiations for months. Assistance for individuals who are unemployed, businesses that lose revenue, and state and local governments facing deep budget shortfalls will be vital to ensuring any hope of an equitable economic recovery.

State leaders must do better moving forward

Updating policies in response to new information is a sign of healthy government. However, in response to the science showing that mask mandates work, state leaders have dug in their heels and shirked their responsibilities. There is still time to reverse course and take action. State leaders should take the following steps:

Protect all Oklahomans:

  • Implement a statewide mask mandate, following the lead of 38 other states and the Cherokee Nation. The previous reliance on personal responsibility has largely failed.
  • Mandate a statewide moratorium on evictions and utility cutoffs. 
  • Call a special session to require all public meetings to remain virtual to protect the health of elected officials and the public. 
  • Provide economic relief, through CARES Act funding or state dollars, for businesses that have lost revenue as a result of state-mandated actions. 

Prioritize schools and children:

  • Prioritize child care workers as essential workers and ensure they have priority to the COVID vaccine when it is available.  
  • Require masks in all schools statewide. 
  • Direct state and/or federal money to continue the Pandemic EBT program through the rest of the school year and apply for the federal Summer EBT program at the earliest opportunity.
  • Reimburse child care providers based on enrollment rather than attendance until the state has recovered, and implement a wage supplement for child care workers. These changes will help parents return to work and will ensure the child care industry survives the pandemic. 
  • Direct CARES funding or other state funding to food banks to ensure that students learning from home are properly supported and able to eat. 

Support those impacted by the justice system: 

  • Transfer all in-person status proceedings, municipal and misdemeanor hearing dockets to virtual platforms, and restrict or suspend all jury trials until the infection rate in a county is less than 5 percent. 
  • Suspend eviction dockets, and use remaining federal or county stimulus to keep eligible plaintiffs and defendants in those proceedings whole through early 2021.
  • Suspend the enforcement of failure to pay warrants.
  • End the suspension of driver’s licenses for court fines and fees or non-driving violations.  
  • Suspend the accrual and collection of criminal court fines and fees until the local unemployment rates reach 2019’s lowest levels of 3.2 percent.  

Ensure necessary medical care is accessible: 

  • Begin enrollment and coverage for the Medicaid expansion population on March 1, 2021, and temporarily extend coverage to immigrant children and pregnant women. This will ensure more Oklahomans can access life-saving and preventative care. 
  • Halt the efforts to introduce privatized Medicaid managed care, as this will likely cost the state extra money and could result in benefit cuts.
  • Maintain current Medicaid benefits and prioritize member retention.  
  • Adopt presumptive eligibility and automated renewals for Medicaid enrollees to ensure that all eligible individuals can access Medicaid coverage. 
  • Shift from Medicaid termination to suspension for those entering jail and prison, and implement procedures to assist with re-enrollment upon release.

Support individuals impacted by the recession: 

  • Help families survive by providing a one-time payment, through CARES Act funding or the state budget. Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont have also provided these funds to their residents. 
  • Encourage employers to rehire employees who separated due to COVID with a one-time payment to both the employer and the employee.
  • For 2020 only, double the Sales Tax Relief Credit to support families with a loss of income. Since single filers have been hit particularly hard, increase the income eligibility level to $50,000.
  • Provide a tax cut for working families by restoring refundability of the Earned Income Tax Credit for 2020 only. 
  • Provide rental assistance directly to renters who have lost income as a result of the pandemic, as has been done in many other states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, and Massachusetts.        

We can still reverse course and save lives

This pandemic has already taken the lives of more than 2,000 Oklahomans, and that number will continue to increase. As a state, we can and must do a better job of protecting those around us. Through personal choices and a commitment from our leaders, Oklahoma can work together to save lives. You can advocate for any or all of these options by using OK Policy’s Find My Legislator tool or by leaving a comment for Gov. Stitt or calling his office at 405-521-2342. There is still time to save thousands of Oklahomans, but it will require comprehensive, courageous, and responsible actions on the part of our leaders. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emma Morris serves as the Health Care Policy Fellow at OK Policy. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in fall 2019 with dual degrees in Women’s and Gender Studies, and Public and Nonprofit Administration. She is an alumnus of OK Policy’s Oklahoma Summer Policy Institute.

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