‘We were struggling with technology,’ Oklahoma’s outdated system caused problems during COVID’s spike last fall, what happens next?

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As the delta variant drives new COVID-19 case numbers higher in our state, we are finding out more details on how the Oklahoma State Department of Health struggled last year to keep up with the first big coronavirus surge.

Labs faxing in test results and some testing facilities completely failing to report new cases at all were reported problems. 

Today, the former State Epidemiologist explained to KFOR how bad things were at the OSDH last fall and what they are doing to prevent that from happening again.

“We were struggling with technology,” said Dr. Jared Taylor.

The former head of infectious disease talking about systemic problems the Oklahoma State Department of Health had last fall as COVID cases spiked.

Those shortfalls highlighted in a recent national Politico article, which said “state officials struggled to control the spread of Covid-19 because their outdated surveillance systems did not allow them to collect and analyze data in real-time.”

“Overall, I think it’s a fair characterization,” said Taylor.

Taylor says the department’s outdated computer system PHIDDO, or Public Health Investigation + Disease Detection of Oklahoma, was set up in the early 2000s and was already slated to be shelved going into 2020.

“PHIDDO certainly was an extremely weak link. It was not set up to handle this volume,” said Taylor.

The thousands of new cases that needed to be reported and investigated daily, caused computer crashes.

To make matters worse, labs and health care providers were using 20th century technology to send in test results.

“When we got those flat files, when we got those faxes, when we got secure emails, whatever like that, we had our personnel going into PHIDDO entering the relevant data by hand, manually,” said Taylor.

Data entry times reportedly pushed back efforts at the Contract Tracing Center at Shepard Mall.

According to an Oklahoma Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) report released in February, contact tracing reduced 65% as new cases rose 205%.

Taylor saying, one day in April, some 1,300 extra cases were announced that had fallen through the cracks in late 2020.

“We had some instances where those facilities simply were not reporting at all,” said Taylor.

“Certainly we have learned a lot of the last year,” said Jolianne Stone, MPH.

Stone, the new State Epidemiologist, says after seeing the LOFT Report from February, entire processes have been rethought. They have overhauled computer systems with new software from Google, similar to the CDC’s. They have also pushed providers and labs to update reporting practices.

“We are driving change and we are updating our systems. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that we can stay ahead of this pandemic and even the next pandemic,” said Stone.

Taylor says he didn’t step down from his position last spring because of the issues, he is still the Chief Medical Officer for the State.

“We don’t need to have a system that can handle 4,000 or 6,000 new cases a day. We need to avoid the situation where we have 4k or 6k cases a day. We need Oklahomans to do their part. We need them to get their vaccinations, practice social distancing and wear a mask,” said Taylor.

State health officials and the Politico article say Oklahoma was not alone – dozens of other states had similar problems.

Officials stress they still need better reporting from health partners and from patients during contact tracing.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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