The state’s relocation of the Public Health Lab from Oklahoma City to a refurbished building in Stillwater with a newly created Oklahoma Pandemic Center hit another road bump with the resignation of the project’s director only four months in.
An association that supports local and state public health labs wrote Gov. Kevin Stitt and other state officials in October to express “significant concerns” and warned that moving the lab “so quickly into an interim facility” not designed for the purpose will be “very challenging and costly.”
The dominant concern, according to the letter, is to assure employee and community safety, as well as the lab’s integrity.
“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,” wrote Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories in his Oct. 20 letter. “We urge you to reconsider your decision.”
Challenges have arisen, and the Oklahoma State Department of Health says some — such as loss of employees — were expected.
OSDH on Thursday confirmed that Dr. Michael Kayser submitted a resignation letter in mid-April to end his employment as the lab’s director but that he negotiated an agreement to stay on in a lower capacity until a new hire is made.
On Tuesday, OSDH announced that another type of test, for tuberculosis, is being outsourced. Also being contracted out of state: newborn screenings and microbiology tests, such as those for E.coli, meningitis and salmonella.
Stitt unveiled his decision Oct. 7, with OSDH planning to have the Public Health Lab relocated by the end of 2020.
However, some services are still being done in Oklahoma City and others at the new location in Stillwater. This is on top of testing being contracted out.
OSDH Deputy Commissioner Travis Kirkpatrick in a written response to questions said the lab’s timeline was extended to “ensure things are done correctly,” with a goal to improve the quality and standards of the Public Health Lab.
“Several factors have caused other parts of the lab move timeline to change,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “Primarily, we have experienced supply chain issues with various vendors, which have delayed the delivery times of several pieces of equipment.”
Kirkpatrick said there are no delays on the outsourced tests, with all turnaround times the same or better. He couldn’t say whether outsourcing tests has cost the state additional money because that figure includes staffing resources.
“We are still within the confines of our original appropriated budget,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
OSDH is using a $58.5 million bond to fund the center. The state also set aside $25 million in CARES Act funds from the federal government authorized to combat COVID-19 and noted it has the Public Health Lab’s $9.5 million appropriated budget to use.
The Oklahoman in October reported that Public Health Lab employees were shocked and angered by the move, not receiving advance notice of the governor’s decision.
There were 65 employees before the move was announced.
There now are 16 employees working in Oklahoma City and 20 in Stillwater, according to Kirkpatrick. He said 14 of the 16 in Oklahoma City will transition to Stillwater on June 1 for a total of 30 employees, with the state planning to hire four more.
“This total staffing number aligns with original plans to transition to using technological enhancements to replace human capital that may have previously filled roles for the lab,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
Kirkpatrick said several employees have received financial assistance for agreeing to relocate, with the state also working to create opportunities for some staff to work remotely once systems are in place.
Tom Dunning, spokesman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said OSDH on average is losing 10 years of public health lab experience per employee not transitioning to the new location.
Dunning said employees were aware a new lab was necessary because the old one was in disrepair and that there already had been a $58.5 million bond passed to build a new one. Employees weren’t expecting the lab to move nearly 70 miles away into a refurbished oil and gas office and warehouse space without discussion, he said.
He added that the state’s responses to questions after the project’s announcement weren’t satisfactory.
“No one could really articulate what are the benefits that we’re getting out of this other than what they described as some kind of synergy by combining animal health, plant health and human health into some sort of lab,” Dunning said. “But nobody could really articulate how this is better for the taxpayers or the public.”
Stitt, in announcing the projects in October, called the day a milestone for public health response in the state by combining agriculture, human medicine, food safety and animal health.
“(The Public Health Lab) will serve as a pillar of the Oklahoma Pandemic Center,” Stitt said. “The long-term strategy is to expand the Public Health Lab to include the Pandemic Center. That will allow us to leverage partnerships across the state in the areas of agriculture, human and animal science.”
Dunning drew a line back to the 2018 Legislature that approved House Bill 3036, which changed the Oklahoma State Board of Health’s role from that of oversight to advisory.
Oversight powers and duties transferred to the health commissioner — a governor appointee.
“That really in our mind took away a lot of the oversight and transparency that the Health Department had in managing it and gave it to the governor,” Dunning said. “He can make decisions about the Health Department through his appointee and really have no checks and balances.”
OPEA supported a House bill this session to require legislative approval before moving a state department more than 10 miles away, but Dunning said the bill stalled after it unanimously passed committee because it didn’t appear to have a veto-proof majority in favor.
Kirkpatrick said the Public Health Lab will be fully operational in Stillwater by this fall.
OSDH intends to bring back in-house screening of newborns on June 1, and mycology and microbiology tests on July 1.
Tuberculosis testing is anticipated to return in the fall, when the Public Health Lab is expected to be fully operational in Stillwater.
COVID-19 sequencing and sexually transmitted infections testing will move from Oklahoma City to Stillwater on June 1, and rabies testing will shift there on Aug. 1.
“This decision was made in order to continue providing Oklahomans with top quality testing and health care services as we continue to establish capabilities at the new Public Health Lab,” Kirkpatrick said in a statement Tuesday. “Our top priority has been and will continue to be to do this right and ensure that the new PHL has the technology, staff and capabilities needed to provide top-of-the-line health services to our state.”