Oklahoma ranks last in testing positive COVID-19 specimens for variants, sparking concern among health officials

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As of Tuesday, the state of Oklahoma ranks last in the nation in testing positive COVID-19 specimens for variants, despite having the only pandemic lab in the country.

The state only tests less than 1 percent of its positive specimens for variants.

The highest state, Wyoming, tests just over 15 percent.

The delta variant is much more contagious than the other variants, making unvaccinated people more susceptible.

Only 38 percent of Oklahomans are fully vaccinated and Oklahoma health officials said the delta variant appears to be fueling growing case numbers.

Active cases have risen by 42 percent in the past two weeks.

“COVID-19 is a pandemic, is a public health emergency and it doesn’t respect borders, it doesn’t respect demographics or our beliefs,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID-19 officer. “It is a public health issue. If we’re going to slow the spread, we’re going to have to be very cautious and watch what happens in Oklahoma.”

The lack of testing for variants in Oklahoma is what health officials said causes concern for continuing to track them.

“We’re very concerned,” said Dr. Mary Clarke, President of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. “We should be testing as many tests as we have.”

The nation’s only pandemic center where that testing takes place resides in Stillwater. It’s been operational since January.

“We’re still a little unsure as to why we’re still testing such a low number,” Clarke said.

“Certainly, there’s a lot of factors that come into play of where these rankings come from,” said state epidemiologist Joli Stone.

Stone told KFOR Monday that the lab moving from Oklahoma City to Stillwater was one delay. She also said some referral labs not sending their specimens in to the state to be tested was another.

“We did have a small area that we had to rely on the CDC to do all of our sequencing,” Stone said. “We did run all of the specimens that we received and that we have gotten.”

Bratzler questioned if the lab has enough staffing to do more specimen testing. However, he said they have the equipment and the space. Bratzler agreed that a focus on getting positive tests turned in for sequencing, or testing, is vital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the same expectations for every state about its rules as to what specimens can be tested.

“I just don’t think there’s been a focus on it, and we need to make sure the laboratories are getting those specimens to the public health lab,” Bratzler said. “As long as we have unchecked spread of this virus and more infections, we will see more variants.”

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The delta variant has been confirmed in northeastern Oklahoma and officials predict that it could be predominant in the state in the near future. The variant is 50 percent more contagious than the original alpha variant and is making up 20 percent of the nation’s new cases. Officials like Bratzler said the spike in the northeastern part of the state could be coming from southern Missouri, where the delta variant is making up over 50 percent of their new cases.

The state said they have put calls out to referral labs to get them to send in more of their specimens for testing. The good news is that vaccinated Oklahomans appear to have good protection, even against the delta variant. Less than .05 percent of people who are fully vaccinated have gotten COVID-19 infections.

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