John Thompson is a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma.

He writes:

The McAlester Public Schools are in the Oklahoma county where COVID is now #1 in the state in per capita COVID infections. A week before the scheduled opening, McAlester reports five positives linked to football. But its schools will still provide in-person instruction.

This is just one of 50 schools with infections on the eve of their reopening in a state which had had a low infection rate, but that is now in the “Red Zone,” with more than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. We must finally ask why responsible leaders, such as the mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, are so unwilling to challenge Trumpian true-believers who undermined science-based public health actions, even as a crisis is clearly unfolding.

A week ago, I hoped to communicate with some of the adults in the room – who I know understand that a second burst of COVID is virtually inevitable. So, I started with a joke, borrowing from the late political Oklahoma humorist, James Boren, who used to say, “When in doubt mumble.”

Trying to persuade, I noted that medical experts and responsible political leaders must always wrestle with doubts. And when their audiences are President Donald Trump and Gov. Kevin Stitt, the ability to mumble something in order to not sound disagreeable becomes an essential skill.

For example, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, made a “highly touted stop” in Tulsa on August 16th, but it was a private meeting. Public health experts were almost as unrepresented as the press and Democratic officeholders; Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, wasn’t invited. Dr. Birx only took five or six questions but at least she warned that Oklahoma may be “a month behind seeing asymptomatic spread happening in other southern states.”

“Asymptomatic spread,” thy name could be classrooms of children returning to public schools and dorms and bars full of returning college students. And what is happening in other southern states (like Texas, Georgia, and Florida) is frightening – perhaps too tragic to say out loud.

Birx didn’t answer press questions as she left. Since she met privately for 45 minutes with Gov. Stitt, there was little opportunity to cross examine his claim, “Overall it went really good, and she’s pleased with Oklahoma and what we’ve done so far.” Oklahomans were told little about her warning about asymptomatic spread beyond Stitt’s characterization of her words, “A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation — it wasn’t a recommendation, but that was something she said, you’ve got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity.”

One of the few media outlets, Tulsa Public Radio, which challenged spin on the crucial question of how schools and colleges can open this month, drew upon a previous study and added, “Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it ‘critical to disrupt transmission.’”

But now that The Center for Public Integrity has published the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force secret report, we know the truth. We are learning what our leaders know and when did they know it. Now that these facts are no longer need to be mumbled, we must look in the mirror and ask tough questions about ourselves and the leaders, including those we have trusted. Before summarizing the report’s key points, more context could be helpful.

Oklahoma’s press has always had reasons to be reluctant to challenge the power structure, so it was no surprise that it was an editorial columnist, as opposed to an investigative reporter, who explicitly revealed a part of the story that intimidates reporters and politicians. The Tulsa World’s Ginnie Graham reminded us, “Dr. George Monks stepped into the role of president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, requiring him speak truth to the powerful and dubious.”

Gov. Stitt had said that “Oklahoma had ‘plenty of runway’ to respond to virus surges.” But Dr. Monk said “a COVID-19 patient waited a day for the “one and only” hospital bed in Tulsa: “We are at the end of the runway.”

Graham reminded us, “some doctors once promoted smoking as healthy and the anti-vaccine movement finds physicians to back their position.” But Monks says, “We should always tell the truth, even if it hurts.”

As time runs out for reducing the size of the imminent crisis, The Frontier, a nonprofit media corporation, reported that former interim state epidemiologist, Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, said that local mask mandates are likely contributing to the current downward trend of new infections. But a reopening of in-person schools and extracurricular activities such as sports will likely increase transmissions. Similarly, Dr. Dale Bratzler, who leads the University of Oklahoma’s coronavirus response, said that they will make outbreaks “almost inevitable.” Bratzler advised, “I think we need to watch very, very carefully what happens in the state because we may need to rethink some of these policies on reopening if we see some of these outbreaks occur.”

Mask mandates appear to be helping Oklahoma control its coronavirus outbreak

Those careful words can’t be dismissed as mumbling, but neither were they headline grabbers. To understand their relative lack of influence, the public must read the Oklahoma Watch account of how Dr. Wendelboe was the second of three state epidemiologists since this March. It cited his predecessor, Dr. Kristy Bradley, who explained, “we had been practicing and developing and fine-tuning that public health playbook in Oklahoma for years and years.” But the governor’s new team “just sort of kept it on the shelf and didn’t dust it off.”

Bradley and Wendelboe had extensive experience with epidemics ranging from Zika to Ebola. But Wendelboe said “his role was to give epidemiological advice, but with the knowledge that leaders have other considerations like the economy or disruptions to daily life to also take into account.” Oklahoma Watch (also a nonprofit) explains:

“There’s many decisions that are being made from different angles,” he said. “I think it’s hard for a state epidemiologist to sometimes know how to navigate some of the factors that are outside the straight epidemiological training. I’ve tried to be really respectful when people don’t take my advice. I understand that there’s other things that I’m not privy to.”

As Pandemic Widens, Oklahoma Diminishes State Epidemiologist Role – Oklahoma Watch

In contrast to fact-based analyses in The Frontier, State Impact (an NPR collaborative), and Oklahoma Watch, the Oklahoman published “Keeping Schools Closed Will Do More Harm Than Good,” an editorial by the Heartland Institute’s Chris Talgo. Since the Oklahoman has a paywall, the best way to understand his argument is to follow the link to Inside Sources, “Keeping Schools Closed Will Do More Harm Than Good.” Talgo says that there are multiple reasons to reopen schools, but:

“They might not because teachers unions and politicians oppose it for their own self-interest. Teachers unions throughout the nation are making outrageous demands before they return to their jobs. This includes defunding the police, “Medicare for All,” huge salary increases and several other requirements that have little to do with improving the educational environment.”

Shockingly, several teachers unions have announced they will not return to work unless and until “a moratorium on private school” is implemented.

In fairness, the Oklahoman also published an editorial opposing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempt to grant schools, businesses and healthcare providers immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. And within a week, the Oklahoman quoted Dr. David Kendrick of the OU School of Medicine about the “new phase” we are entering, “We had four months now without the impact of primary, secondary and university education on the possibility of transmission. … As schools are opening, we are going to have to give that a big, hard look.”

Counterpoint: Ditching Accountability for Schools Should Get Failing Grade

So, I will still mumble support for experts who try to be as candid as allowed when advising politicians. But we now know what the Coronavirus Task Force was actually recommending when Dr. Birx was visiting on August 16. The high points, which are the opposite of what the governor claims, include:

Mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide to decrease community transmission.
Bars must be closed, and indoor dining must be restricted in yellow and red zone counties and metro areas.
In red zones, limit the size of social gatherings to 10 or fewer people; in yellow zones, limit social gatherings to 25 or fewer people.

And that brings us back to the issue of government leaders who would like to do the right thing, but they don’t dare articulate what they know is likely true. Ideology-driven officials demanded that we place the short-term benefit of bars and other businesses over our students, making it impossible to safely reopen schools. Many compliant public schools and colleges are leading us to a tragedy.

The premature reopening imposed on communities quickly drove our state’s seven-day average of daily infections from 69 on June 1 to 1,089 on August 1. Since then, our previously effective leaders have gone along with sound bites about a downward curve, ignoring the experts’ warnings about what would happen as schools reopened.

As I wrote this, yesterday’s infections were announced – 1,077.

Then, it was also revealed that Mayor Bynum just learned from Birx that “eight White House reports had been issued. He said he was only aware of one that had been previously leaked to the media.” Stitt then agreed that “he will ask that the White House reports be made publicly available to everyone.”

If the full truth about reopening schools – which should have been revealed more than two months earlier – is released as students are going back to in-person classes, and infections are spread, parents should demand more than mumbling from the governor.

Stitt bows to pressure to release White House reports on coronavirus