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Oklahoma health officials say the public health lab needs more money

A sign in front of the Public Health Lab in Stillwater, Okla.
Oklahoma State Department of Health
A sign in front of the Public Health Lab in Stillwater, Okla.

Oklahoma lawmakers are planning to put more money into the state’s public health laboratory, which could bring total investment up to about $39 million.

The lab had been in disrepair for decades, and at one point was even at risk of losing its accreditation. In late 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced his administration would build a replacement.

However, instead of building near its existing facility in Oklahoma City’s biomedical district, it relocated the lab to Stillwater. There have been several issues since, such as a federal investigation that found the lab mishandled COVID samples.

“There are some things that … we are not 100 percent happy with,” Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Paul Rosino said during a Senate hearing last week to discuss funding for the lab. “Some of the services we are getting done that would normally be done at our health lab, we’re having to send other places.”

In a written statement, an Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesman said the tests being outsourced require a higher level of biosafety authorization.

Health labs are assigned different biosafety levels, based on how much health risk the lab can contain with its equipment and protocols. There are four levels. The first level doesn’t require much: standard personal protective equipment, a sink for handwashing. Those are allowed to work with microbes that aren’t very dangerous. Right now, Oklahoma’s health lab is at a level 2.

“Some of these tests also require a higher level of biosafety precautions, including level 3 precautions,” spokesman Erika Rankin wrote. “As an example, this group would include bioterrorism agent identification. One test that is certainly more frequent and is the most common test we currently outsource is for Tuberculosis.”

They’re also outsourcing uncommon tests such as those screening for Haemophilus bacterial infection, Group B Streptococcus and West Nile Virus.

On Wednesday, the House passed Senate Bill 1131. It’s basically a technicality. Back in 2017, the Legislature gave the State Department of Health permission to take out $58 million in bonds to pay for a new public health lab.

Under the Stitt administration, the agency ended up using state and federal funds instead, and officials told the Legislature that the bonds were no longer necessary. SB 1131 revokes permission for those bonds.

Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, carried the bill. After the Stitt Administration announced the move to Stillwater, Martinez was one of the most vocal critics. He was concerned about moving the lab during the pandemic, as well as moving it away from the biomedical district, which also houses the OU Health campus, the Oklahoma Blood Institute, and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. He issued a press release at the time lambasting the decision and saying he’d look for a way to file legislation to block the move.

“I did share a lot of concerns, and I still do, about the health lab being in Stillwater,” he said during Wednesday’s floor hearing.

He and Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, revisited some of the issues that have come up with the lab. That included an earlier controversy about outsourcing. There were issues with critical blood screenings performed for all newborns in the state, and the lab began outsourcing them after the move, when there were concerns about the lab’s new protocols. There were also concerns about the lab’s privatization.

“There are some problems I’d love to investigate with you and work through, to make that more accountable to the Oklahoma public, and make sure that citizens are getting the testing and all the wonderful things they deserve from the state health lab,” Martinez said to Fugate during the hearing.

In late 2020, the agency announced it was bringing in a private contractor to manage the lab. The management company was Prairie One Solutions, a subsidiary of the Oklahoma State University Research Foundation created a few weeks before the announcement.

Several investigations into the lab, both by federal regulators and by local media, found significant problems with the lab’s operation, including dire worker shortages. The sudden move to Stillwater contributed to the shortages when long-time employees chose not to relocate.

The Department of Health signed a contract with Prairie One Solutions in 2020 for one year with four automatic renewals for four years afterward, but in January, the agency said it had opted out of renewing. Overall, the state paid the company $2.5 million for its services, according to nonprofit outlet The Frontier.

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Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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