Contractors could soon manage the Oklahoma Public Health Laboratory, Interim Commissioner of Health Lance Frye told employees this week.
Additionally, health officials confirmed to The Frontier and StateImpact that the plan now includes temporarily moving portions of the lab into trailers while renovations to the interim facility are underway.
In the letter to employees delivered Tuesday, Frye outlined a plan in which the State Department of Health would “consider private sector alternatives to the management of the public health laboratory and the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence.”
That move is the latest development in a complicated — and at times controversial — plan to move the state’s public health lab to Stillwater. The lab, which operates under the State Department of Health, has been crumbling for decades. At one point, its state of disrepair was so severe that it risked losing its accreditation.
Gov. Kevin Stitt announced this fall that his administration would be the one to finally replace the lab.
“This consideration will include the potential privatization of some functions, programs, services, units, and/or divisions of the agency,” Frye wrote.
Oklahoma State University will be involved in the lab in a few ways. The department would partner with the university’s research foundation to manage the lab. The university is also in charge of hiring the director of the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, a role that would have oversight power within the public health lab.
Although Frye’s letter to employees used the word privatize, Deputy Commissioner of Health Travis Kirkpatrick said in an interview Wednesday that the term “privatization” would be a misnomer; officials used that word in the letter because of a legal mechanism in state statute.
“We’re not privatizing the public health lab,” he said. “So, what we’re doing is we’re considering a management agreement with Prairie One Solutions, which is a not-for-profit subsidiary of the OSU Research Foundation.”
Prairie One Solutions was registered on Nov. 18 by the president of the OSU Research Foundation, according to Oklahoma Secretary of State business records.
Kirkpatrick said the demand for coronavirus testing and the strain it caused highlighted how badly the state needed to invest in the lab.
“But more than that, we needed some, you know, some kind of fresh eyes and a new perspective on how we can really get some of those efficiencies that we’d like to create,” he said. “The management agreement is really just to kind of step in and do some of the day-to-day granular mechanics of management so we can create some of those efficiencies.”
The administration announced the relocation plan in the fall. Critics have raised concerns about the location, logistics, and moving the lab in the middle of a pandemic. It would move the lab to a different city, away from Oklahoma City’s biomedical hub, and it would involve retrofitting an existing building into an interim facility while the state constructs a new building.
When officials announced the move to Stillwater in October, they said the move would take place by year’s end. Kirkpatrick said that is still the plan.
“We anticipate the move to be fully engaged by the end of the year,” he said. “And whether we meet (the goal of having) all 100 percent of our staff move, that is to be determined.”
Some of that work will temporarily be done out of trailers while the interim facility, which was previously an office building, is being fitted for the lab. The building is not yet equipped to test certain specimens, such as COVID-19 samples, Kirkpatrick said. Meanwhile, the trailers are equipped with certain safety features that allow for the processing of more dangerous specimens.
Kirkpatrick said the trailers won’t only be used as a temporary workspace for public health employees. They also have the potential to be utilized for mobile coronavirus testing, he said.
A Florida company named BioGo has submitted a proposal for the project. The pitch includes three lab trailers, which would house laboratory and office space.
The trailers, which cost about $2.9 million, will be purchased with CARES Act funds, Kirkpatrick said.
The BioGo proposal was addressed not to the department but to the director of research programs for Oklahoma State University. Kirkpatrick said that colleagues at OSU had more of an awareness of that vendor, and worked with them on the bid.
Kirkpatrick said the purchase of the trailers did not go through the state’s normal competitive bidding process because there was a moratorium placed on that process when it comes to pandemic-related purchases. The state will own the trailers.
“I think because of its utility and because of COVID, really, what caused us to kind of need to move quickly on this,” Kirkpatrick said.
The Stitt administration announced it would create a pandemic center as a collaborative initiative to tackle future pandemics during the same October press conference that announced the lab’s move to Stillwater. Oklahoma State University’s job listing for its director states the hire would answer to the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, as well as oversee the public health lab’s compliance with clinical lab regulations.
The role would be filled as part of the agreement with Prairie One Solutions, Kirkpatrick said. The position will still ultimately be overseen by the health department.
Kirkpatrick said the salary for that role would be paid out of the state’s management agreement fee. He said he could not disclose more details because the contract is pending.
The administration drew immediate blowback when it announced the lab would move out of Oklahoma City’s biomedical hub to Stillwater.
The lab’s location in Oklahoma City’s biomedical hub ensures it is close to the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center, as well as several other organizations such as the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
The Oklahoma County Medical Society was one of many organizations chiding the move. It echoed that concern about moving it from its counterparts in the biomedical industry, as well as the move away from Oklahoma City’s central location within the state.
“The Public Health Laboratory is located within 10 minutes of all major interstates that crisscross the state of Oklahoma,” the organization’s comment said. “Also, because it is centrally located in Oklahoma City, it can respond to the vast majority of the state within a few hours.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about the move away from a central location, as well as the executive branch’s decision to keep lawmakers out of the process and the use of federal coronavirus relief to help pay for an infrastructure project.
The Association of Public Health Laboratories, a trade group that advocates for those kinds of labs across the country, submitted a letter to the Stitt administration in mid-October, raising concerns moving the lab in the middle of a pandemic.
“We believe your plan to relocate the laboratory so quickly, especially during this time, is unrealistic and attempting to meet that deadline is unsafe for the trained staff and the community it serves,” the letter reads in part. “We urge you to reconsider your decision.”
The Frontier’s Kassie McClung and StateImpact Oklahoma’s Catherine Sweeney partnered on this report.
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