OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma's former state epidemiologist warned that President Donald Trump's rally in Tulsa in June could lead to as many as nine deaths and 228 new cases of COVID-19, according to documents released Wednesday.
The documents released by the Oklahoma State Department of Health in response to an open records request show that the state's former epidemiologist, Aaron Wendelboe, warned state and Tulsa health officials of the dire consequences if the rally were held, though his projection was based on it drawing an estimated 19,000 Trump supporters and only about 6,200 actually showed up.
“I am advocating here for clear communication of the risk of holding a mass gathering," Wendelboe wrote in an email to Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, five days before Trump's June 20 rally at a downtown Tulsa arena. “I’m not sure of any instance where we would hold a public event and say ‘…and by the way, there is a chance that attending this could lead to a minimum of two deaths.’"
In another email to two of his former colleagues at the University of Oklahoma, Wendelboe expressed reservations about how forcefully he should share his concerns.
“As the state epidemiologist, I feel I have a responsibility to speak out and warn of the estimated risk," Wendelboe wrote in a different June 15 email. “However, that responsibility also lies with the health commissioner and the secretary of health; both with whom I have shared my concerns. I am acutely aware that Governor (Kevin) Stitt has invited President Trump to the state."
The existence of the documents was first reported Wednesday by The Hill.
Wendelboe’s contract expired this summer and he no longer works for the state health department. He declined to comment Wednesday on his findings.
The Tulsa Health Department does not publicly identify where potential virus transmissions occurred, so it's not clear how many people contracted COVID-19 at Trump’s rally. But among those who attended was former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who was photographed not wearing a mask and sitting close to other people who weren't wearing them either. According to a statement on his Twitter account, Cain tested positive for the disease on June 29, nine days after the rally, and died on July 30.
Dart publicly urged the Trump campaign to cancel or postpone the rally, but neither he nor Mayor G.T. Bynum had that authority, spokeswomen for both men said Wednesday. Dart has said that Trump's rally and large protests held in Tulsa surrounding the event “likely contributed" to a surge in cases in the following weeks.
A spokesman for the Republican governor, who also attended Trump's rally without wearing a mask, acknowledged that members of Stitt's cabinet were briefed on Wendelboe's projections ahead of the rally.
“The governor has reviewed models from several epidemiologists throughout the pandemic. Each one has projected scenarios far more severe than reality, often multiple times more extreme," Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema said. “The governor takes all modeling input seriously as he makes decisions and recommendations."
Stitt was the first U.S. governor to publicly acknowledge testing positive for COVID-19, although he has said he did not contract it at the Trump rally.
Wendelboe's estimates, which ranged from between two and nine deaths, were based on a projection that 19,000 Trump supporters would pack into Tulsa's BOK Center for the rally. The rally ultimately drew an unexpectedly low crowd of about 6,200 people after Trump's campaign bragged that more than a million people had requested tickets. Trump's former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was replaced less than a month later.