OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – More questions are being raised surrounding the relocation of the state’s Public Health Lab to Stillwater back in 2020 and the potential use of coronavirus relief money.
A recent investigation by The Frontier noted that “Oklahoma officials used millions in federal relief money to cover pandemic-related payroll costs, freeing up other money to move a state lab that has since been plagued with problems.”
“We just never really heard any more about it [but] the health department has, I think, tried to address in a way that still makes it seem like the move was the right choice,” said Kayla Branch, a reporter for The Frontier.
“The way they rushed the move to Stillwater in just a few months, so many have said that was not the way to do it,” she added.
“I felt like it was important for people to know, you know, if tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID 19, relief money was somehow used to help move the lab, you know that that was an important thing for Oklahomans to know.”
However, as the report also notes the Public Health Lab was moved in the “best interest” of the state, according to a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Health Department.
“OSDH leadership is confident that the use of CARES funding for pandemic-engaged staff payroll was clearly in line with the intent and purpose of the funding,” the agency confirmed in an email to KFOR Wednesday.
For months, KFOR has also been investigating several issues surrounding the state lab which provides essential public health testing for the state, including accreditation, testing capabilities, accuracy, staffing levels, and frustrations around the newborn testing program, which has caused several families “pain and anguish” due to an abnormal number of false positives for serious genetic testing.
In July, KFOR was granted access inside the Stillwater lab for a tour, along with an interview with the state’s health commissioner, who cited cost savings and overall efficiency for lab operations as reasons to send even routine tests like rabies to other labs for processing.
“Outsourcing sounds bad, but it’s not always bad because sometimes it’s about being more efficient [in] your operations,” said Commissioner Keith Reed, also saying outsourcing was part of an effort to get the facility up and running after the move.
“Keep in mind, when we made the move, we were in the upswing of the pandemic. So our focus was trying to get us in a position that we could meet the pandemic needs of the state,” he continued.
“Our focus at that point was pandemic testing is what we’re trying to do. And these other things we knew we would bring them online afterwards.”
In that interview, Reed also addressed criticism over the state’s pandemic center, which he confirmed doesn’t physically exist.
“The $30 million number, the best I can figure out where that came from was some early budget documents that had $30 million that was set aside for pandemic center. That did not happen,” he said at the time.
“The $30 million was used for our pandemic response testing, COVID testing [but] the pandemic center itself is a vision,” he continued.
“The state was willing to come up with strategies to shuffle around money and get this maximum flexibility around and federal guidelines on how they should have spent this money,” said Kayla.
“They’ve had to outsource a bunch of tests, and they’ve had staffing shortages. They were investigated by the federal government for, you know, issues at the lab and how they were handling COVID 19 samples. And there’s just been a whole plethora of issues,” she added.
“If tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money was somehow used to help move the lab, you know that that was an important thing for Oklahomans to know.”