'This disease is still spreading in Stillwater': Mayor Joyce discusses recent spike of coronavirus cases

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Mayor Will Joyce speaks during the Stillwater Utilities Authority meeting at the Stillwater Municipal Building on March 11, 2019.

In what feels like the snap of a finger, Stillwater’s coronavirus case total has spiked to unimaginable levels.

After holding steady with 22 total cases from the beginning of this pandemic until June 7, the total now stands at a whopping 130. Which is crazy considering school hasn’t even resumed.

But the scariest part? This may only be the beginning.

“We’re focusing, right now, on ramping up our communication around the concern and around the social distancing protocols,” Mayor William Joyce told the Stillwater News Press. “And just making sure that people understand that this disease is still spreading in Stillwater.”

Most of the city has been living in a lax state of mind with the low case count, which makes the recent spike a big shock to most, but Joyce said he isn’t too surprised by the rise.

With testing ramped up, some students returning to Stillwater for jobs and all businesses now open, a spike was anticipated.

What does surprise Joyce — and others — is the speed in which these cases have compiled.

“We are very concerned at the rapid increase of positive COVID-19 cases, especially in the young adult population,” said Necia Kimber, Stillwater Medical Center Director of Infection Prevention and Control. “Since Oklahoma has moved forward to Phase II on May 15 and Phase III on June 1, the amount of family and social gatherings/activities has significantly increased.” 

And that’s the thing.

While a majority of the cases came from young adults in the 20-27 age range, Joyce said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the resurgence began.

But that uncertainty brings the social distancing guidelines back to the forefront of the discussion, which Joyce had already been preaching for these past several months — even when there were zero active cases.

“It’s just as crucial as it’s always been,” Joyce said. “I think we’re certainly seeing a situation where people aren’t focusing on that quite as much. Even when we were at zero active cases, that number is always a little bit misleading because so many, even of these new cases, are asymptomatic.”

People typically aren’t tested unless they’re in contact with somebody that has it. Or in the case of the OSU football players returning to campus, they had to be tested because of procedure.

The team found three asymptomatic cases, but it begs the question: how many more people in Stillwater are in the same boat?

It’s not practical or even possible to test the entire population every day, so preventative measures need to be taken.

“Our stance on taking proper precautions to prevent the spread has not changed,” Kimber said.  “Wearing a mask and social distancing is the best way to contain this virus if you must be out in the community. Masks are about protecting others, and they work best if both parties have them on. Remember that the virus is still contagious even if the infected person does not have symptoms.”

These guidelines might be getting tiresome, but perhaps this is the better option. Does anyone really want to take a step back?

“I asked our city attorney to be ready with a potential return to Phase II declaration if/when we feel like that’s a necessary thing to do,” Joyce said. “I want to avoid those steps back, if at all possible. We got to figure out a way to deal with this on an ongoing basis. We’re ready to do that if we see concern around hospitalizations and healthcare stress related to the cases we’re seeing in Stillwater.”

It’s a possibility, but Joyce hopes the spread of the virus will cut down with social distancing guidelines.

And that’s the backbone of the whole thing. Stillwater needs to get to a safe plateau so Oklahoma State University can return in the fall. Which would then rejuvenate stores, restaurants, hotels, etc. In turn, restimulating the economy.

It’s like a domino effect. But with the events of the past week, questions began to swirl around if OSU opening is feasible.

“That’s a really tough question,” Joyce said. “We all have to be realistic about the fact that if OSU is on campus in the fall, we’re going to have a baseline level of positive cases in the community. It’s going to be there. It’s not going to be at zero. Trying to figure out what that baseline of acceptable cases is a difficult thing right now because we really don’t know what that should look like in a lot of ways.”

That’s the difficult thing. Joyce said he’s been reading up on a lot of public health information, which tells him staying below 5% is the good metric.

But even that’s hard to measure in specific counties/cities.

There’s no number set in stone, but to find that, Joyce preached the importance of communication, distributing information and finding the equilibrium.

And that strikes the question: how does Stillwater strike find the balance between safety restimulating the economy?

“The major concern for us in this pandemic, from the beginning, has been protection of the healthcare infrastructure,” Joyce said. “Because if you get an overload in terms of people in the hospital and people in intensive care, that puts a huge strain on our healthcare resources.”

And that affects more than just COVID-19 patients.

Whether that’s heart attacks, strokes or cancer, there are a lot of major health issues that hospitals deal with. Which brings up another problem.

“If we were to be in a situation where our health care system wasn’t able to continue to keep up, that creates tremendous economic strain on the community when you don’t have a functioning healthcare system for some length of time,” Joyce said. “If we were to be in that situation, it would create even greater economic hardships for our community than having to have restaurants serve takeout or having to have certain businesses close for some length of time.”

That would be an almost nightmarish situation for Stillwater and its people. But to avoid that, to stop the spread of the virus, it takes an effort from everyone.

“Residents and students have got to take this seriously if we hope to return to any type of normalcy in the fall,” Kimber said. “We want our stores to be open, our restaurants to be full and the campus/schools to have activities again. In order to accomplish that, we have to be proactive now to stop the spread.”

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