Calling in all resources: National Guard to assist local pandemic while confirmed cases in Carter County remain few

Michael Smith
Health workers in full personal protective equipment at an Ardmore drive-thru test site on April 2. Health officials say confirmed cases of COVID-19 are tallied to a patient’s home county and not the test site’s county.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma crossed the 2,500 mark this week, Carter County has only seen one case of the novel coronavirus. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, that person has since recovered.

Surrounding counties with smaller populations have recorded more confirmed cases and deaths, and local health officials have taken note of the rather perplexing statistic.

“I don’t want people to think that I’m not noticing that we have a very low number for a county the size of Carter. I think that there are multiple questions people would have about that,” said OSDH Regional Director Mendy Spohn.

Spohn’s focus remains on rolling out testing sites across southern Oklahoma and tracking down people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or other diseases. Drive-thru test sites in Madill and Marietta this week tested nearly 60 people, and Spohn said more efforts are being made to test Spanish-speaking populations.

Drive-thru test sites are scheduled for Marshall and Johnston counties next week. The Marshall County Expo in Madill will have a testing site on Tuesday, and the Johnston County Fair Barn in Tishomingo will have a testing site on Thursday. Both sites will be open from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Nearly 700 tests have so far been administered in Carter County at a variety of locations. Spohn said most of those tests have been for county residents. “I want to be really clear. It doesn’t matter where somebody is tested, their number counts for the county they live in,” said Spohn.

Across the nine counties that make up the health department’s region in southern Oklahoma, Spohn said upwards of 30 nurses help conduct tests and contact investigations for positive results. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, she said her staff regularly investigates other public health issues like food-borne illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 49 infectious diseases and related conditions must be reported to the agency by health care providers. A list from the state health department lists 33 infectious diseases that must be reported by health care providers.

Spohn said additional staff members were added shortly before the pandemic response started. Three nurses and four support staff members were recently hired and Spohn said an opening remains for a nurse practitioner. Spohn will also receive additional help from the state beginning next week.

To help with the pandemic response, Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday activated nearly 200 members of the Oklahoma National Guard. Spohn said eight guard members have been assigned to her southern Oklahoma district and are expected to help with transporting samples to labs for testing.

While testing continues, the low case number in Carter County will be monitored and Spohn said social distancing guidelines need to continue. She declined to attribute the low case number to any single factor but said Carter County’s location and access to essential goods and services may play a role.

“I think it probably did shut down the need to go north or south and risk that kind of exposure. Will we know exactly what did it? Probably not,” she said

Another possible reason for so few confirmed cases in Carter County was the early response by area schools and businesses, when some closed as early as March 12. Spohn said answers to exactly what is behind the few cases may only be answered after an investigation, if an answer is found at all.

“I don’t want to give an exact because I think that would be wrong. Nobody really has an exact answer,” Spohn said. “There are some things that, when you take that into consideration, there are probably many factors that play into why we have low cases, and that could change tomorrow,” she said.

For now, Spohn recommends testing for symptoms and social distancing to continue despite the difficulties.

“I haven’t seen my parents ... my daughter hasn’t been able to go see her cousins. That is difficult and I know everybody is being faced with that, but it’s so important and critical to keep that spread down,” she said.