OKLAHOMA CITY — The state Department of Health has disbanded a specialized unit that responds to public health emergencies as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow.

In a letter sent to state employees Oct. 5, Dr. Lance Frye, the interim commissioner of health, said the Incident Command Service would be demobilized effective immediately.

When activated, it brings together members of the state’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Service (EPRS) and state health employees to engage in special assignments while responding to a public health emergency, state officials said.

“This demobilization is being conducted in an efficient and safe manner and will involve all elements of the incident command organization,” Frye wrote in a letter obtained by CNHI Oklahoma. “The EPRS will work in the coming days to ensure all routine activities created during the pandemic response continue uninterrupted and that program areas are prepared to assume the daily function and resource management required to ensure continuity of services.”

In a statement, Travis Kirkpatrick, the agency’s deputy commissioner, said as the pandemic response has progressed, the duties assigned to staff when the unit was initially mobilized have become interwoven into the daily functions of Emergency Preparedness and Response Service employees.

“As a result, a decision was made to demobilize this specialist group, and allow for members of the (Health Department) team to return to their normal job routines,” he said.

He said the demobilization did not result in any job losses.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma continued to climb Monday with health officials reporting 774 new positives. The number of deaths reached 1,173 and 792 people remained hospitalized.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, questioned the timing of the decision to shutter the unit.

He said it is the second questionable decision the agency has made this month.

“This comes on the heels of his efforts to move the (public health) testing lab to Stillwater,” Bennett said. “They seem to be short on answers on why they’re doing these things, and why they’re doing them now.”

He said Oklahomans deserve transparency when decisions are made, and perhaps the Health Department should re-evaluate whether the demobilization is a good idea.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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