OKMULGEE, Okla. - “Are you willing to wear a mask for your neighbor?” Dr. David Kendrick, CEO of MyHealth Access Network and OU-Tulsa’s chair of medical informatics, puts it that simply.
Dr. Kendrick, who is a participating member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s COVID-19 taskforce, shared some sobering statistics. Positivity rates (the percentage of COVID-19 tests performed that are positive), are again on the rise across the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation. With back-to-school season in full-swing, infection rates among teenagers and college-aged students has doubled since July and is the fastest growing group of positive cases. Although young populations typically recover, the clear trend is for the infection to spread to older populations, ultimately putting elders and vulnerable populations at risk.
Kendrick said proper masking can curb infection rates.
“The data shows that masking policies are an effective way to counter the community spread of COVID-19. Communities with mandates have greater reductions in the percent of positive tests,” he said.
MyHealth is an Oklahoma-based health information exchange, linking more than 4,000 providers and 4 million patients statewide into a community-wide health information system. Data collected shows that over time, communities with mask mandates have increasingly lower positivity rates when compared to cities without a mandate. A new MyHealth analysis shows that 28 days after mask mandates went into effect for six of Oklahoma’s largest cities, those cities had a 4.6% lower positivity score than cities without masking policies. Tulsa is seeing a noticeable difference in positivity rates as a result of its mask mandate with 5.6% decline 28 days after the policy’s effective date.
Many tribal health facilities, including the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Department of Health (MCNDH), contribute hospital and clinic data to MyHealth and utilize my MyHealth data to manage and respond to population health trends. Kendrick noted that upon seeing community trends in a COVID-19 dashboard produced by MyHealth, MCNDH was quick to respond with mask mandates at tribal facilities to protect citizens.
Kendrick also reported that, according to MyHealth data, MCNDH has the fastest testing rate in the state. Many in Oklahoma have had to wait days and sometimes even weeks to get their results back. At MCNDH facilities, rapid tests and results are reported within an hour on average, which is important to containing community spread.
“MCN’s rapid testing, reporting and analysis allows health officials and healthcare providers to make important, real-time decisions to keep citizens and the community safe,” he added.
Kendrick acknowledged that mask mandates can be politically challenging and believes there are essentially three available paths for communities and tribes to take in responding to the pandemic. One, shut down entirely, which hurts the economy and impacts individual livelihoods; two, open up completely and pursue herd immunity, which puts elders and other vulnerable populations at significant risk; or three, pursue a middle-of-the-road solution to resume activities with caution and wear masks.
“This is a relatively low-cost, convenient option when compared with death or being the cause of someone else’s death,” he added. “Wearing a mask yields a high reward, saves lives and allows us to return to normalcy more quickly.”
Kendrick added that he expects to see a rise in cases resulting from increased social interaction from Labor Day activities. The spike will likely occur over the next two weeks, and when combined with the already significant rise in infection rates among young populations, it is more important than ever for people to wear their masks.
Although many are struggling with coronavirus burnout and pandemic fatigue, the MCNDH urges citizens to remain vigilant and wear masks to protect citizens, elders and our community.