OKLAHOMA CITY — After pledging to relocate the state’s public health lab to Stillwater, the Department of Health doubled down Monday despite growing concerns about timing and the wisdom of relocating it from the capital city.
“I’m concerned that we’re kind of putting ourselves in a lurch during an already difficult time,” said state Rep. Kelly Albright, D-Midwest City. “We’re leading the nation in COVID cases, and not in a good way.”
Albright said she doesn’t understand the logic of moving. The lab currently serves 75 counties from Oklahoma City — where it’s been located for years — to Stillwater, which doesn’t have access to a major airport.
The lawmaker is concerned that moving from a central location will delay Oklahomans’ test results, including COVID-19 tests and genetic screenings of newborn babies, which require rapid turnaround times.
Albright said employees were told they could keep their jobs if they’re willing to commute more than 100 miles a day. If not, they’ll be unemployed during a pandemic.
“It’s like 'suck it up and deal with it or you don’t have a job,' which is a sad way to deal with our employees,” she said.
Travis Kirkpatrick, the Health Department’s deputy commissioner, said Monday that the lab would be fully moved by the end of the year.
State health officials said last week they’ll use $25 million in state funds along with federal coronavirus aid to move the laboratory from Oklahoma City into temporary leased space in Stillwater.
Leaders plan to later build a permanent health laboratory in Stillwater within the next few years, using $58.5 million in bonds approved by the Legislature in 2017.
He said the plan has always been to move and build a new-and-improved lab. The current facility is antiquated and needs to be upgraded to improve testing capacity and overall capabilities. The move will help build a state-of-the-art lab to better serve all Oklahomans into the future, Kirkpatrick said.
Once in Stillwater, lab officials will evaluate their use of the latest technology to ensure there are no delays or lags in testing results, he said.
Kirkpatrick said all 65 employees have been offered to keep their current positions and remains confident they’ll be able to fully staff the new lab.
“This move will help us invest in rural health as we continue to partner with those in the urban areas and the new downtown OKC office for the State Department of Health,” Kirkpatrick said.
But state Rep. Ryan Martinez, R- Edmond, pledged Monday to file legislation during the upcoming session to retain the lab in Oklahoma City.
“It’s important to keep the Public Health Laboratory in our state’s capital,” he said in a press release. “Locating the lab in an already established major medical complex where it can function in conjunction with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation will help in the recruitment of top doctors and other medical staff as well as keep services central for all Oklahomans.”
He didn’t respond to a message left seeking additional comment.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said Monday that she’s reached out to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office to request a bipartisan presentation on why moving the public health lab is best for Oklahomans.
“It is extremely rare for a single person, even a governor, to have the ability to unilaterally make the decision to close, remodel and rebuild a state asset, using millions of taxpayer dollars, without any direct input from the public or state employees who serve the agency,” she said. “It may be unprecedented in Oklahoma.”
Tom Dunning, a spokesman for the state’s Public Employees Association, said the group has written to legislative leaders expressing concerns with the move.
“It’s less disruptive to build it (in Oklahoma City) and have the same continuity of employees than have a new facility with a new lab and potentially a significant number of new employees,” he said.
He said current employees weren’t consulted about the move, and questioned how many would be willing to commute to Stillwater when they can make more working at a private labs much closer to home.
“The last thing we need is a disruption in some of the folks doing the lab work,” Dunning said. “Now they have to wonder about their future.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.