Officials with the city of Tahlequah and Cherokee County ordered a "shelter-in-place" partial lockdown after Northeastern Health System confirmed a positive case of COVID-19 Tuesday, March 24.
The order will go into effect Wednesday, March 25, at 11:59 p.m. The decision came after Gov. Kevin Stitt held a press conference earlier in the day announcing the closure of all non-essential businesses in the counties where positive test results for COVID-19 have been confirmed.
According to District 2 Cherokee County Commissioner Mike Brown, health care officials have asked that county officials take action to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, and prevent health facilities from being overrun.
“They’re running critically short on masks and personal protective equipment,” said Brown. “Their ERs will be overrun if we have a large influx as the tests starts coming in. Their tests are delayed about a week right now. They’re starting to ramp up to where they have tests coming in hourly. So with that, we’re going to have more confirmed cases.”
The individual who tested positive is a 50-year old man who is a resident of Cherokee County. He has been quarantined and is being treated for COVID-19. Earlier Tuesday, two Cherokee Nation citizens – one a tribal employee – were confirmed to have COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the area task force handling the situation is taking notes from Homeland Security regarding non-essential businesses that will have to close. Local law enforcement, government, medical facilities, pharmacies, transportation, communication, natural gas, water departments, and grocery stores will remain open. The Tahlequah Daily Press news team will also remain on the job.
The task force is working to deliver more information regarding which businesses are not considered essential.
“So most of Tahlequah is going to remain open, but on a very limited access,” said Brown.
During the live video, State Rep. Matt Meredith D-Tahlequah, said NHS is treating the infected individual and non-essential businesses are ordered to close.
“The biggest thing you can do is stay at home, if you can wash your hands and keep your social distancing from each other,” said Meredith. “If you do not have to leave your house, do not. If you have a neighbor that’s elderly, try to help that person by going and getting their groceries, etc., and then leaving those on their doorstep for them so you don’t have to have contact with them and to help them from going out into the public.”
Meredith commended the mayor and county commissioners for coming together so quickly, and said they will meet Wednesday morning, March 25. The Press will attend that meeting.
“We will be providing some more updates tomorrow afternoon at some point, after we get done with our meetings,” said Meredith. “We thought it was important tonight to come to you live and to get this information out to you.”
Meredith said a task force meets daily. The group includes Mayor Sue Catron; Tahlequah City Councilors Bree Long, Stephen Highers, Dower Combs and Trae Ratliff; Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Mike Underwood; Police Chief Nate King; Tahlequah Fire Chief Ray Hammons; Cherokee County Commissioners Mike Brown, Doug Hubbard and Clif Hall; and the CEOs of area hospitals.
“It’s a scary time. This is something none of us have been through,” said Meredith. “But it’s important to know that as long as we practice these procedures and we practice social distancing, and practice washing our hands – we abide by the recommendations that are set before us – we’ll get through this.”
According to NHS, the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the hospital that a patient had tested positive March 24. The NHS COVID-19 task force will trace back potential exposure and report as needed.
“Our team remains diligent in following the guidelines and recommendations set forth by the CDC and OSDH on how to provide safe care to our community,” said Donna Dallis, NHS vice president of Patient Care. “The safety of our employees and our patients has always been, and will continue to be, our priority.”
NHS has put protocols into place to protect patients, including: enhanced visitor restrictions; screening everyone who enters the building; limiting access to the building; universal precautions; personal protective equipment; and Oxivir-TB and Bleach cleaning.
According to Erielle Stout, senior director of marketing and development doctors or nurses who have traveled outside of the state, and who have signs or symptoms, are not allowed to return for 14 days. When returning without symptoms, they are required to wear masks during their shifts for 14 days after they returned from outside of Oklahoma.
Stout confirmed NHS will be adhering to Stitt’s mandate of not performing elective surgeries. According to NHS, at least 19 tests for COVID-19 have been performed, 11 of which have been confirmed negative, while eight remain pending. It is unclear if the one confirmed case Tuesday evening was among the eight pending.
Potential patients should call the NHS 24/7 hotline at 918-822-1175 before visiting a doctor’s office, Urgent Care or emergency department, if they have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 or they have a cough, fever and shortness of breath.
“Today’s announcement serves as another stark reminder of the seriousness of this pandemic,” said Brian Woodliff, NHS president and CEO. “I want to ensure the patients that … NHS is focused on this crisis, and that we are doing everything we can to prepare for the patients who will come to us for care.”