Oklahoma health leaders worried about upcoming school year as Delta variant continues to spread

OKLAHOMA, Okla. (KOKI) — Some Oklahoma doctors fear a new state law could hinder what schools can do to keep their students healthy and safe against the COVID-19 Delta variant when classes resume next month.

Senate Bill 658, signed into law last month by Governor Kevin Stitt, prohibits a district from implementing mask mandates or vaccine requirements without a State of Emergency being declared by the governor.

When the law was written, the mutation of COVID-19 that was predominant in Oklahoma was mainly a lethal threat to older adults and the elderly. With the law in effect as of July 1, the Delta variant has arrived in Oklahoma from the neighboring states of Arkansas and Missouri.

“We now have children showing up in ICUs in other states with COVID Delta who are experiencing COVID pneumonia and need to be given oxygen,” Dr. Donna Tyungu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health, said.

Tyungu spoke as part of the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition, which is endorsed by and has members from the Oklahoma State Medical Association. The doctors all agreed that “COVID Delta” will present a challenge to students and parents in the upcoming school year because the Delta variant is attacking younger people, and its mortality rate is higher than previous COVID variants.

“From a prevention perspective, our hands are tied,” Dr. Mary Clark, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said about SB658.

Clark, Tyungu, and others are concerned that the lack of a vaccine for elementary school-aged children under 12, and the inability to enforce a mask mandate could lead to a heavy outbreak of COVID Delta. One that could even cause some districts to go back to distance learning measures similar to those last put in place the previous school year.

Oklahoma State School Superintendent Joy Hoffmeister said last week she too was worried that Oklahoma’s children were being sent to school this coming fall with no protections against the Delta variant because of SB658.

The Coalition recommends families send their children to school with masks on and for teachers to consider wearing masks when they teach.

“We know our governor knows about this variant, and we hope he takes action before school starts,” Dr. Jean Hausheer said. “We know he is watching this closely.”

The group said districts and educational institutions like colleges and universities have their hands tied until Stitt acts. Their primary concern is what could play out in elementary schools while vaccine testing remains ongoing for elementary school-aged children.

“We expect results out this fall,” Tyungu said. “We know that with smaller children, they require smaller doses, and they’re testing that out right now.”

FOX23 reached out to Governor Stitt’s office for a statement about issuing an emergency for the upcoming school year. We have not heard back yet.