The director of the Public Health Lab and Oklahoma Pandemic Center has resigned amid the state’s controversial effort to relocate the former and launch the latter.
Dr. Michael Kayser in an April 16 letter announced his resignation effective April 30, saying he is “unable to continue in these roles.” Kayser noted that he will help complete current projects and train others to take over his duties.
Through its public relations firm, the Oklahoma State Department of Health said there was a negotiation to continue Kayser’s employment to ensure a smooth transition.
“I believe in the mission and vision of (the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence) and am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to launch the Public Health Laboratory and Pandemic Center in Stillwater,” Kayser wrote. “This will become an asset to Oklahoma, the region, and the country. Unfortunately, I am unable to continue in these roles.”
The Kayser news comes the same week that the State Health Department announced that more types of tests are being outsourced as the move from Oklahoma City to Stillwater slogs along — originally touted in October to be completed by the end of 2020.
The Public Health Lab’s relocation to Stillwater came in conjunction with establishing the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence there, too.
Stitt announced his decision to move the lab on Oct. 7, shocking and angering employees who weren’t given advance notice, the Oklahoman reported.
Kayser was tapped by the state in January to lead the project.
Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, authored a bill this year to require legislative approval to move any department of state government farther than 10 miles from its current location. House Bill 1921 unanimously passed a committee in February but stalled afterward.
In February, Oklahoma Watch reported that staff shortages and equipment transitioning prompted the state to outsource some testing to private labs that would result in delays between 24 and 48 hours for some microbiology tests.
Since then, the state has made two more announcements about farming out tests outside the state: newborn screenings in March and tuberculosis testing on Tuesday.
The Health Department said some services continue to be offered either at the old location in Oklahoma City or at the new one in Stillwater. COVID-19 sequencing and sexually transmitted infections testing are to move to Stillwater on June 1, with rabies testing following on Aug 1.
Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said in a statement Thursday that the decision to relocate the Public Health Lab has been “fraught with difficulties” from the outset, the newest of which is the leadership change.
“While we remain hopeful the Oklahoma State Department of Health can work through these ongoing challenges, we would once again like to underline how important it is to have a fully operational lab that can turn around tests quickly and accurately,” Clarke wrote. “For some of our patients, these test results are truly a matter of life and death.”
The Health Department announced in December that it was contracting out operations of the Public Health Lab and Oklahoma Pandemic Center to Prairie One Solutions, a nonprofit subsidiary of the OSU Research Foundation.
Kenneth Sewell, president of Prairie One Solutions, said in a statement that Kayser agreed to stay on as lab director until a new clinical director is hired. Sewell said Prairie One Solutions will conduct a national search for both the Public Health Lab director and executive director of the Oklahoma Pandemic Center.
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.”
The state is using a $58.5 million bond to fund the center. It also set aside $25 million in federal CARES Act funds and planned to use the Public Health Lab’s $9.5 million appropriated budget.