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Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Friday he is "not planning" to declare a state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic as health officials urge him to wield the power to implement a mask mandate in public schools.
"This is about personal responsibility," Stitt said at a press conference in Tulsa, emphasizing his decision is "about freedoms."
Legislation signed by the Republican governor, which went into effect on July 1, prevents public school districts from requiring students to wear masks unless the governor issues a state of emergency in their region.
The governor said that the law does not block parents from voluntarily masking their children or having them receive the vaccine.
"The difference is, we're not going to mandate that somebody else has to send their 4-year-old to school with a mask or someone else has to get their 4-year-old vaccinated," Stitt added.
Oklahoma health experts have urged Stitt to make a mask declaration despite the recently signed legislation barring him from making a mandate without a pandemic emergency declaration, according to the Oklahoman.
Dr. Donna Tyungu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, said that without a statewide emergency declaration, "a lot of our superintendents' and school leaderships’ hands are tied."
“We've got to start having a coordinated, cohesive statewide response to prepare for this new wave,” said Dr. George Monks, a former president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
A spokesperson for Stitt confirmed his comments, saying, “At this time Governor Stitt has no plans to declare a state of emergency," in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
Although no emergency declaration is in the governor's playbook, Oklahoma health officials have reported a new surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks.
At least 4,840 cases of the virus were reported between July 11-17, marking an 80% increase from the week before, data from the Oklahoma Department of Health show. So far, about 1.5 million people in Oklahoma have been fully vaccinated, roughly 39% of the population, according to Health Department data.
Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said on July 20 the highest concentration of outbreaks are in the "northeastern part" of the state. She noted the outbreaks are near Missouri and Arkansas, states that are presently experiencing a surge in delta variant cases.
Stitt, who was seen on video in March receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, encouraged residents to "make that decision about their healthcare with their physicians or their doctors" during the Friday press conference.
Other states and school districts across the country have taken a more cautious approach for students returning to classrooms in the fall semester, implementing mandatory or voluntary mask orders to limit infections.
Children under 12 are presently not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, though the Food and Drug Administration has signaled it aims to make the shots available for children by midwinter.
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Original Author: Kaelan Deese