OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma State Department of Health lacked sufficient contact tracing data to measure the spread of COVID-19 in the state and help communities make data-driven policy decisions, according to a draft report released Thursday by a legislative watchdog.
The report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency also found that data collected by the state “was either lacking in substance, withheld, misaligned, or never developed for public consumption.”
“OSDH contact tracing efforts failed to keep pace with the growing spread and exposure of COVID-19,” the report states. “From September 24th to December 23rd, contacts being monitored by OSDH decreased by 65% while (the) number of positive COVID-19 cases increased by 205% during the same period.”
The goal of contact tracing is to alert people who may have been exposed to someone with a disease and to prevent them from spreading it to others. Health experts say it is key to containing outbreaks.
In response to the report, Oklahoma's interim health commissioner, Dr. Lance Frye, explained that the challenge the agency faced responding to the pandemic was overwhelming.
“No doubt there were a multitude of challenges with contact tracing in Oklahoma, the United States and throughout the world over the course of the COVID-19 response," Frye said. “Experts have noted that by May 2020, contact tracing cases were overwhelmed in the United States due to rising cases.
“To evaluate the state's response based entirely on contact tracing ignores key components of our multifaceted public health response."
In addition to being overwhelmed by the number of cases, Frye said the agency's technology infrastructure was woefully inadequate and that Oklahomans were often hesitant to answer questions from contact tracers.
“Contact tracing is only as good as the information you receive from people," Frye told a legislative panel on Thursday. “We had many instances where people just refused to either give us information about who they had been in contact with or where they had been and also who refused to quarantine if we asked them to quarantine. It’s a difficult situation."
Contact tracing data is currently not available on any state published reports, and although health department leaders initially planned to create a separate public dashboard with that data in the fall of 2020, those plans were abandoned in January to instead focus on vaccine distribution, according to the report.
Frye said the agency agrees with many of the report's recommendations, including that the agency follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for contact tracing and work with health departments in surrounding states to learn best practices for collecting and publishing data for the public.
Meanwhile, two Oklahoma City council members will propose ending the city’s mask mandate, while Tulsa’s mayor said his city’s mask requirement will remain for at least two more weeks.
Both city's mandates were approved in July and are scheduled to expire April 30.
In Tulsa, Mayor G.T. Bynum said health leaders asked city officials to wait two weeks after spring break, which ended last week, to assess any impact of travel on the number of coronavirus cases in Tulsa County.
“That's their ask and that's what we're going to do,” Bynum said Wednesday.
The health department on Thursday reported 369 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 41 additional deaths from the disease, raising the state's pandemic totals to 436,504 cases and 7,768 deaths.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Oklahoma has fallen by roughly 42% over the past two weeks, from about 643 new cases per day to 374, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Associated Press writer Ken Miller contributed to this report.