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‘We’re losing the fight’: Tulsa COVID doctor

jaflippo/iStockBy ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News

(TULSA, Okla.) — Oklahoma reported a record 22 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest number of single-day fatalities from the virus in the state since spring.

The state’s worsening outbreak prompted an outcry from doctors in Tulsa, who pleaded with local officials and the public to take the pandemic more seriously during a Tuesday news briefing.

“I never thought after the army I’d be on another battlefield,” said Dr. Roger Gallup, a critical care physician and retired army doctor, who has been treating COVID-19 patients at Saint Francis Health System since the start of the pandemic.

“Our ICUs, COVID units and community have become home to an enemy that we’re losing the fight against,” Gallup added. “We are clearly headed in the wrong direction.”

Indeed, daily infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all rising in Oklahoma, according to an ABC News analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project. As of Tuesday, Oklahoma had reported 118,409 COVID-19 infections and 1,273 deaths, according to the state health department.

In addition to rising case counts, an average of 34.7% of tests returned positive every day in the past week in Oklahoma as of Tuesday, according to an ABC News analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, which is nearly seven times higher than the rate that health experts recommend.

A high positivity rate can be a sign that a state is only testing its sickest patients and failing to cast a net wide enough to accurately capture community transmission, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The World Health Organization recommends that governments get their positivity testing threshold below 5%.

“It’s worse now than it has ever been in our community, just as it is in our nation,” Gallup said, pointing to “casualness” among Oklahoma residents about wearing masks and social distancing as driving forces behind the worsening outbreak.

“We need to get this under control before our region’s health care system becomes strained to the point where we are out of options,” he cautioned.

Jake Henry Jr., president of the St. Francis Health System, the largest hospital and health care system in Oklahoma, doubled down on the message. Oklahoma had a shortage of doctors and nurses even before the pandemic. Exhausted health care workers, Henry said, many of whom are working 12-hour days with no end to the outbreak in sight, aren’t a renewable resource.

After risking their lives on the front lines, health care workers feel defeated when they leave the hospital and see “unmasked apathy in public spaces,” he added. That apathy may be translating into an unwillingness to provide information to the health department when residents are exposed to the virus. Contact tracing is going poorly in Oklahoma and many residents decline to provide information about their close contacts or places they’d been after being exposed.

“I fear that we are entering a very, very dark winter,” Henry said.

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