Debates over mask mandates continue as COVID-19 numbers rise

By Michael Kinney

Pam Carter was not happy. When the Lawton resident got up to speak in front of the City Council on Tuesday, she wanted to let the group know exactly what she thought of them and it wasn’t pleasant.

 “We voted for you to protect our God-given constitutional rights, not our health. You are not responsible for my health,” Carter said. “I am responsible for my health. You have no right to infringe upon my constitutional right over a virus with a 99% cure rate.”

Carter was among those trying to get the council to consider repealing its mask mandate in which all persons in the city limits must wear a facial covering while in public places.

The council invited people from both sides of the debate to speak, which resulted in a spirited session that lasted nearly two hours. But in the end the council decided to keep the mandate intact throughout the rest of this year.

However, the council asked city staff to start looking for an exit strategy, which they will revisit on January 12, 2021.

Carter was one of a group of residents who not only disagreed with the order forcing them to wear facial coverings in public places, but also contend the City Council broke the law when they made it a citywide mandate.

“According to our constitutional rights, if two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress threaten or intimidate any person of any state, in the free exercise or enjoyment of a right, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 10 years,” Carter recited to the council. “And if death results from the acts committed from this violation, they may be sentenced to a number of years or life or sentenced to death.”

Among those in favor of keeping the mask mandate intact was Dr. Scott Michener, chief medical officer for Comanche County Memorial Hospital (CCMH). After praising the council and the residents of Lawton for having the mask ordinance, he described to the council the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation in Lawton and Comanche County and how it’s affecting the hospital’s ability to operate.

With the limited space in CCMH’s ICU, they are forced to try to send patients to other hospitals. But what Michener found is that almost every major hospital in the state is dealing with the same problem.

In the CCMH emergency room Tuesday morning, “We had 16 patients waiting for beds upstairs because we’re full,” Michener said. “But what it does is, there’s nowhere in the hospital to put them. We don’t have any place. We can’t transfer to Oklahoma City because Oklahoma City is full. There’s literally no place to put patients and the problem with that is, that puts a stress on the system.”

Despite mask mandates, residents still go mask-less into public settings

Michener said this drain on resources is not just equipment, such as ventilators, and space, but also the nurses. “There’s a nurse that goes to a patient’s bed and provides COVID care. Those people are stars,” he said. “They’re the true heroes in this. But you can only push them so far and everyone’s getting pushed. Oklahoma City is getting pushed. We’re getting pushed. We can’t transfer those people.”

“It’s not about the individual,” Brandie Combs, Region 5 director for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, told the City Council. It’s about surviving a pandemic. “None of us like masks,” she said. “It’s not a comfortable thing to wear but we know they’re impactful.”

The coronavirus is much more lethal than influenza, she said; COVID-19 has killed more people in six months than the flu did in all 12 months of 2019. COVID-19 has become the third-leading cause of death in the United States this year.

COVID-19 “is infecting our population, and if it is introduced into a vulnerable population such as a long-term care facility, anywhere there’s a congregate living situation, a homeless shelter, a women’s shelter, anything like that, it could spread quickly,” she said.

Lawton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Hime told the council the reason schools are able to have in-person classes is because of the city mask mandate, and that the most important thing they can do is keep the students in school.

However, not everyone agreed with all of the sentiments that had been expressed from the community.

That included Paul Green. He and Mayor Stan Booker had a contentious war of words when Green discovered he was given only three minutes to speak, and he told Booker that he and the rest of the council work for him.

After the dust settled, Green continued by saying no one wants to wear a mask, even those who have come out in favor of the mandate. “Every speaker that you have previously brought up here has said they don’t want the mask, they don’t like the mask, they think it’s inappropriate,” Green said. “They have all said it in some form, shape or fashion. And they are the professionals. So, again, why are we having to wear the mask?”

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