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Emails show a rush to finalize a deal to move Oklahoma's Public Health Lab in the face of pushback from lawmakers

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Dylan Goforth / The Frontier
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The Oklahoma Public Health Lab in Stillwater, Okla.

This story was produced in partnership with the nonprofit newsroom The Frontier. 

When Gov. Kevin Stitt announced in October 2020 that his administration would relocate the state’s Public Health Laboratory from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, lawmakers and health care groups raised concerns the move would compromise testing capabilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Shortly after the announcement, three state lawmakers representing the Oklahoma City metro area issued a press release, raising concerns about the move. Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, said he would file legislation to keep the facility in Oklahoma City.

Over these protests, the Oklahoma State Department of Health moved ahead with the plan and signed a management agreement with Prairie One Solutions, a nonprofit formed in 2020 under the Oklahoma State University Research Foundation, to manage the new lab in Stillwater in December, before the state Legislature convened for its next session.

The state paired the lab with a new pandemic research center, and state health officials have said the new Stillwater facility will “become a global leader in promoting pandemic awareness and preserving public health.” 

Emails obtained by The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma show state leaders wanted to quickly lock a management agreement with PrairieOne Solutions into place because of pushback from state lawmakers.

Attorney Matt Stacy, who at the time served as the agency’s hospital surge plan adviser, wrote in an email dated Oct. 29, 2020, that Elizabeth Pollard, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Innovation, was “anxious” to get the contract finalized.

“We have already experienced some legislative resistance to the move to Stillwater and as many pieces, as we can have in place sooner rather than later will make this deal hard to break up,” Stacy wrote.

In a written response to questions from The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma, the Health Department said it was aware the Legislature had “great interest in the success of the state’s Public Health Lab.”

“We wanted to work closely with them through it,” the response said.

Martinez remains critical of the state’s scramble to relocate the facility.

“It was a rushed move with low scrutiny, high cost and bad early results,” Martinez said in a written statement provided to The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma. “There was a clear intent to minimize and avoid communication with legislators, lab employees and the public.”

During the transition to Stillwater, the state faced testing delays after it temporarily outsourced some work the Public Health Lab would ordinarily do to other facilities. In a September 2021 inspection, federal investigators found the lab had mishandled COVID-19 testing samples and faced critical staffing shortages. The Health Department said all issues investigators found have since been fixed.

In the past few months, the Public Health Lab has again come under fire for its COVID sample sequencing. Health officials and researchers use genomic sequencing to find new COVID variants and Oklahoma is ranked last nationally for total samples sequenced, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials have said the state recently improved its efforts.

Legislature passed bonds for a new lab that haven’t been used 

While the Legislature passed bonds to replace the state’s old Public Health Lab in Oklahoma City more than four years ago, the Health Department hasn’t used any of that funding. The agency has also tapped federal pandemic relief money to help cover some of the cost of the move to Stillwater.

Long before the beginning of the pandemic, agency officials warned the lab’s capacity was severely limited, the building was falling into disrepair and its equipment was aging into obsolescence. The lab’s infrastructure was decaying to the extent that it risked losing accreditation from the College of American Pathologists.

The state Board of Health made obtaining state funding for a new lab one of its top legislative priorities in 2014.

The Legislature authorized a bond to build a new lab in 2017. Lawmakers passed House Bill 2389, which allowed the agency to take out more than $58 million in debt to build the lab. The lab was initially expected to be completed by 2019.

To date, that debt has never been taken out, said Andrew Messer, Oklahoma’s deputy treasurer for policy and state debt management.

In a statement, the Health Department confirmed it hadn’t yet utilized the bond.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that put a deadline on the State Health Department to take out the bonds by 2025.

Public relations and moving expenses

Amid opposition from the Legislature, the State Department of Health used about $2.9 million in funding from the state’s federal CARES Act funding for mobile lab trailers to assist with testing capabilities while the lab’s new building was being outfitted. The state ordered the trailers in late 2020, which were initially expected to arrive sometime in 2021. More than a year later, the Public Health Lab is still waiting to receive the lab trailers. The mobile lab trailers are still undergoing a quality check before they’re delivered to the state, a spokeswoman for OSDH said.

“These trailers will allow for specialty processing, including microbiology and mycology testing, at the PHL, as well as, position the lab to be prepared for future pandemics,” department officials wrote in a statement.

Expenses have also included funding for the lab management contract the state entered with Prairie One Solutions, as well as fees to a PR firm to manage the lab and pandemic center’s reputation.

The state Health Department has paid Prairie One more than $1.69 million, Oklahoma Watch reported in December.

Between October 2020 to November 2021, the Oklahoma City-based public relations firm Saxum billed the Oklahoma State Department of Health more than $250,000 for work related to the Public Health Lab. That figure comes from invoices the agency submitted to the Health Department.

Health Department officials said they believed using the funds for public relations related to the Public Health Lab was an appropriate use of state and federal funding meant for public health information assistance.

“The Public Health Lab and pandemic center are closely tied to our pandemic response efforts, and both serve as tools in our overall response,” the agency said in an email. “This is evident through the COVID-19 testing and genomic sequencing services that are provided by those entities. We did not have the internal capacity to initially take on the communications and inquiries regarding the PHL and OPCIE.”

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Catherine Sweeney reports for StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on health.
Kassie McClung reported for The Frontier on health, criminal justice and other state issues.