BRISTOW, Okla. — Epidemiologist Mark Brandenburg saw the threat months ago: The data coming out of China signaled that this could be "the pandemic we had feared for a long time."
The chief medical officer of a small hospital in this town of 4,200 people, Brandenburg didn't wait for orders from the federal government or direction from the statehouse. By mid-February, he had launched a citizens' response team to prepare the community for the novel coronavirus's arrival. Local leaders organized a phone chain. Teams of teenagers and college students were formed to deliver groceries to seniors.
Long before schools around the country started closing their doors, the Bristow school system readied a program to feed kids if it shut down — a must in a city with a 25 percent poverty rate.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) was resisting health officials' recommendations to close schools and restaurants and was allowing medical centers to continue elective procedures, even as other hospitals reported shortages of masks and protective equipment. Then, on March 14, he attracted national attention for tweeting a photo with his family at a "packed" Oklahoma City restaurant — which he later deleted.
Along with Bristow, some of the larger communities in the state started going at it alone, hoping local preparations would blunt the impact on their residents if the virus swarmed Oklahoma. The mayors of Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Norman each ordered limits on public gatherings and began shuttering businesses nearly two weeks ago.
"There was no guidance on how small towns should prepare well in advance," said Brandenburg, a veteran of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the Oklahoma City bombing. "And my experience allowed me to know this and get in early and get our town up and running."
Stitt made a dramatic shift Tuesday after his scientific advisers forecast a steep increase in Oklahoma's cases, which more than tripled in 72 hours (as of Sunday evening, Oklahoma had 429 documented cases). He ordered elective procedures to cease, bars and restaurants to temporarily close in counties with established coronavirus cases, and told elderly and vulnerable Oklahomans to stay home for five weeks.
"We need all Oklahomans to take this really, really seriously," the governor said at a virtual news conference. "If we take no actions at all, the cases will outstrip our capacity and our health-care system."
In a statement Thursday to The Washington Post, Stitt's communications director, Baylee Lakey, said Oklahoma's exposure to the coronavirus in early March "was slower than what was being seen around the nation. As the environment evolved in Oklahoma and data on covid-19 indicated Oklahoma had its first untraceable case, Governor Stitt took quick action and declared a State of Emergency that followed CDC guidance."
Across the country, many towns and cities have pursued their own shutdown orders and emergency responses, sometimes out of frustration with the slow response of conservative governors, as the national debate over how to handle the epidemic — more closures vs. reopening the economy — takes an increasingly partisan tinge.
Stitt's turnaround demonstrates the quandary that many loyalists to President Trump and red-state governors will face in the days ahead as the coronavirus spreads through the United States — the sobering messages from health experts on the ground pose a stark contrast to the president's vow to reopen the country and fill all the churches by Easter Sunday.
Some opponents say Stitt's actions are already too little, too late and that the patchwork approach across the state is not going to stem the spread.
Oklahoma's State Department of Health reported Saturday that 15 Oklahomans have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus (the number has since grown to 16). It reported 16 cases and one death in Creek County, where Bristow is located.
The department has set up satellite testing stations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Kay and Pittsburg counties and is adding ones in Woodward County and the town of Altus next week.
"We've got to be more proactive," said Breea Clark, the Democratic mayor of Norman, the state's third-largest city. She was one of the first mayors to issue her own state of emergency and advocates a nationwide shelter-in-place order. "The idea that Oklahomans might be more immune to this than people in other parts of the country . . . it's mind-boggling."
Chris Jordan, an emergency room nurse working at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said the state's slow response and the hospital's "complete lack" of personal protective equipment has endangered health-care providers.
"We're being given daily rations, essentially, and being told, 'This is the best we can do at the moment, and please try to be responsible and ration appropriately,' " said Jordan, who posted a photo of their limited supply of face masks on Facebook.
But in this largely rural state, many residents have questioned whether they are as vulnerable as those living in coastal cities such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Stitt received multiple texts and calls from supporters urging him to keep businesses open at a time when two of Oklahoma's biggest industries — oil and aerospace — are sagging because of the virus outbreak.
Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts retail company, still had many of its stores open for business Wednesday. In a letter to employees last week, its owner, David Green, wrote, "While we do not know for certain what the future holds, or how long this disruption will last, we can all rest in knowing that God is in control."
Jeanine Bookout, the owner of Bookout's Family Restaurant in Bristow, tried to keep her dining room open before the state's most recent orders, requiring patrons spaced out at booths. She can only scrape by for about a month under these circumstances, she said.
"I'm on the razor's edge as it is," she said, even before business fell 80 percent during the epidemic.
She said she favored allowing businesses to stay open in Creek County.
"I think it's got to be opened up again," she said. "A lot of people are going to go bankrupt and lose everything they have."
Stitt, a businessman who headed a mortgage company before taking office in January 2019, has been criticized by some community leaders for not closing the schools. As officials for Tulsa's public school system were preparing to shut down the week of March 9, Stitt announced they should stay open.
Even when the governor endorsed a temporary school shutdown on a March 16 conference call, he expressed skepticism about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance at the time that individuals should not gather in groups of 50 or more. Two people described the conversation on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly.
By the time of that call, the husband of a teacher at Tulsa's Thomas Edison Preparatory High School had already fallen ill, though school leaders did not learn that until the following day. Supervisors had already instructed the school's custodians to wear gloves and thoroughly clean surfaces with their usual disinfectant.
The teacher's husband died March 18. The following day, staff supervisors sent the school's custodians home and instructed them to start a 14-day quarantine.
"A lot of custodians feel like they're the low end, that they're expendable," said a member of the custodial staff, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
The Tulsa health department has said there is no risk of exposure to the school's students or staff, and none of the custodial staff has gotten tested for covid-19.
In a recent email to the school's families, schools superintendent Deborah Gist wrote: "The reality we have right now is that there is a shortage of the supplies needed to be able to test. So, while you should ask your doctor or call the hotline yourself, I can tell you from personal experience and from the experience of even those who are sick that you are not likely to get tested right now."
Scarce and delayed tests for ordinary people have continued to plague the state, and officials' decisions to test its entire state Senate and the visiting Utah Jazz basketball team have sparked an outcry.
The state health department reported Thursday that it had completed about 1,300 tests, 248 of which were positive. At the governor's nightly briefing Monday, according to an aide, state scientists warned him the numbers were starting to spike.
At Tuesday's news conference, Stitt and his staff said they were ramping up testing by working with the state's two biggest universities and private labs.
"I think we are in very good shape as we move forward," said Elizabeth Pollard, the state's deputy secretary of science and innovation who has worked as a medical lab testing executive.
Public health decisions carry added weight in Oklahoma, which ranks at or near the top of the country for illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and chronic lung disease. It has a large at-risk population of residents with underlying conditions who may be at risk of serious complications if they contract the coronavirus. From 40 to 45 percent of all adults in Oklahoma — about 1.2 million people — are at risk, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In Bristow on Tuesday, workers from the local school district packed around 300 brown bag meals to distribute at points across the community, where 61 percent of school age children are eligible for free and reduced lunch, a key indicator of poverty. Employees loaded brown bags with carrots, ham and cheese sandwiches, cereal and milk.
One of those who stopped by a local church parking lot to pick up lunches was Carla Fullbright, 43, a dialysis nurse with four children, including Jeremiah, a 7-year-old with a chronic lung condition. A dedicated nurse who considers her work a calling — she sleeps at the clinic before a heavy snowfall — she worked through the AIDS crisis and treated hepatitis C without fear. Now, covid-19 has her "scared to death" she'll transmit the disease to her son.
She and her husband, Leonard, a produce manager at a grocery store, are considered essential employees, so they are continuing to work.
"I wish it hadn't happened, I wish it would go back to normal. I think life will never be back to the way it was," Fullbright said. "There may be good things that come from it — like being at home with your family. But I still think a lot of people are not taking it seriously."
At the local food pantry, workers had set up curbside delivery to protect both recipients of groceries and those packing them, according to Toni Godwin, the executive director of Bristow Social Services, and were asking recipients not to get out of their cars.
"Stay in your vehicle," she asked Vicky Jones, 55, of Bristow, a caregiver to her husband Benny, who is suffering from advanced throat cancer.
Godwin asked Benny how he was feeling, then said, "I'll pray for you."
"Thank you," Vicky Jones said. "I'd give y'all a hug…"
"Can't do that," said Godwin, waving her arms in the air. "Air hugs — that's all we can do."
Elsewhere in town Tuesday, volunteers handed out pizzas in some of the low-slung affordable apartments that dot the city.
One recipient, Patricia Flood, 70, who is disabled, said she had been suffering from a low-grade fever and a dry cough for several days, but that her physician said she would not get a test because she hadn't been around anybody who tested positive for covid-19 yet. She begged the volunteers to bring her Lysol and hand sanitizer, which she said were sold out everywhere.
Still, she said she was trying not to worry.
"I have faith," she said. "Right now, we all better have faith."
Eilperin reported from Washington. Julie Tate contributed to this report.