STILLWATER, Okla. (KFOR) – Following months of reporting on the state’s public health lab, on everything from concerns about newborn screenings to questions around the state’s pandemic response and COVID variant testing, KFOR was granted access inside the Stillwater lab for a tour, along with an interview with the state’s health commissioner.
A prior email from a representative of the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) said the lab’s former director, Dr. Jarrad Wagner, “continues to assist in the transition to the new director.”
Before the tour started, KFOR was told no cameras would be allowed for the first part of the tour, due to privacy concerns.
The tour with the state’s Public Health Lab comes after several issues KFOR has been reporting on recently, including problems with newborn screenings, an issue which left some Oklahoma parents on edge.
Additionally, contradictions in prior state Public Health Lab testing led to comprehensive review in 2021, according to the state agency.
Newborn screenings are required for every baby born in Oklahoma, according to OSDH; they also confirmed the department performs all newborn screenings in their Stillwater-based Public Health Lab.
Screenings are routine tests and help medical professionals identify possible abnormalities or out-of-range results that may need additional testing.
If warranted, diagnostic testing may be conducted to confirm or rule out a range of rare or serious diseases; they also present opportunities for early identification and treatment.
“But being a screening program, unfortunately, there’s always going to be some of that that’s going to have to occur or else we’re going to miss positive cases. And that’s just a risk that we can’t take,” said Reed.
However, newborn screening results provided by a June open records request from KFOR, confirmed Oklahoma parents have been incorrectly told their baby had received a positive screening for a life-altering condition.
In a previous interview with KFOR, representatives from the state’s public health lab said as many as 50,000 newborn screening tests are done each year.
“Out of range or abnormal results does not mean that the child has the condition,” said Lisa Caton, OSDH Newborn Screening Coordinator.
The Department of Health provided requested data in response to an open records request by KFOR in June.
The information provided showed that in December 2021 alone, 72 tests came back positive for X-ALD, a potentially fatal and rare genetic disorder; all newborn screenings are conducted by the state’s health lab.
However, data from a 2015 study done at Duke University indicates that there should be just two to three positive tests for every 100,000 tests done for the disease.
A supplemental correction to the June test was sent to KFOR on July 6 detailing several corrected data points, as well as an expanded explanation of previously used terminology.
KFOR is waiting on additional information in reference to a series of follow-up questions about training and competency, the Laboratory Information System used for newborn screenings, and what the process is for identifying and correcting mistakes.
When asked for an explanation about unusually high numbers from one month to the next in newborn screenings, State Health Commissioner Keith Reed cited several challenges, including equipment.
“We do have new equipment,” he said in the interview Thursday with KFOR. “We’ve relocated our lab and we’ve got new state of the art equipment. So, any time you have different equipment, you may have different sensitivities within that equipment,” he said, while adding, “changing that equipment” could also prompt “a change in your abnormal results.”
The commissioner said the staff is working with other lab partners as well as their manufacturers to explain why the prior screening numbers are so high.
“We’ll continue to get it down to the absolute minimum that is acceptable,” said Reed.
KFOR also asked about the lab’s COVID-19 testing abilities, including the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, established in 2020.
According to the CDC, Oklahoma previously ranked near the bottom for states in variant testing, but at the time, the center was touted as the state’s “frontline of defense” against COVID.
When asked Thursday, Commissioner Reed said while there is a brick and mortar building for the Public Health Lab, the Pandemic Center is more of a vision.
“An operational building does not exist at this point in question,” he said , referring to the pandemic center as a physical structure. “The pandemic center itself is a vision.”
OSDH confirmed 37 employees currently working for the lab, including three administrative level employees.
As confirmed to KFOR Thursday, the Public Health Lab now has a permanent director.
Tamar Baruch-Finkel, a pathologist, was present for the tour; however, KFOR was not presented with an opportunity to speak with her one-on-one.