Oklahoma lab struggling after move, privatization: 8 things to know

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The state of Oklahoma ranks last in COVID-19 sequencing, according to the CDC, despite being the only state to establish a pandemic lab.

Oklahoma's public health lab has struggled with staffing shortages and testing delays since it moved in early 2021 from the medical hub of Oklahoma City, the state's largest metropolitan area, to an office building next to a cow pasture in Stillwater. The move came alongside the privatization of the lab at the direction of Gov. Kevin Stitt, according to a Dec. 12 Oklahoma Watch report published in Tulsa World.

Here are eight things to know from the report:

1. Gov. Stitt's administration and the Oklahoma State Department of Health said the old lab was outdated and couldn't be accommodated when the health department moved to new headquarters in downtown Oklahoma City.

2. The lab's former administrative director, John Murray, said in a December 2020 email to public health officials that the lab's functions could be compromised under proposed changes.

3. Mr. Murray, the former lab director, said in his email much of the lab's proposed savings attributed to privatization came from a 20 percent workforce reduction. "The current proposal does not address specifically what measures would be undertaken to be able to accomplish a 20 percent reduction of workforce, while maintaining the public health mission of the laboratory," he said in the email. "Indeed the relocation of the laboratory immediately brings with it added work in re-establishing the laboratory at the new location, re-validating existing laboratory tests and validating new tests."

4. Many employees found out about the lab's move from an October 2020 press conference. Upon moving, they found expensive lab equipment in their new workplace but not enough electrical outlets.

5. Newborn screening was outsourced on an emergency basis in March to Pittsburgh-based PerkinElmer Genetics after health officials said they discovered the state was using an outdated testing process for newborn screening. Newborn screening has since returned to Oklahoma.

6. Officials said PerkinElmer's newborn screening would add tests to the panel to screen for rare metabolic disorders, but newborn screening returned to the lab in the summer with just one additional test. The state spent more than $8.5 million with PerkinElmer, according to financial documents.

7. Inspectors said the old lab had 11 testing employees and four clerical staff for newborn screening. At the new lab, it had nine testing employees and no clerical staff.

8. The lab is looking for its third director since the move to Stillwater. Michael Kayser, DO, resigned in April after just three months on the job, and an interim director has filled the role since then.

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