Hours after the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus increased by seven, bringing the state total to 17, the department stated that at least for now, it would have to start further limiting who was tested for the virus.
The reason? A national supply shortage of testing kits and the key chemicals needed to process tests, also known as reagents.
State health department officials stated on Tuesday the agency had the capacity to run only roughly 350 more tests until it received more supplies from federal partners. It was unclear when the department would get more, but at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Health Commissioner Gary Cox said he hoped it would be “very soon.”
“We’re told that that’s what to expect, and so we hope that that’s the case and we can expand testing to more people in Oklahoma that need it,” Cox said.
Doctors and health officials in the state acknowledged the number of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma was higher than the recorded numbers reflected.
As of the morning of March 17, the state had received 247 negative results for COVID-19 and was awaiting the results for 82 tests. Seventeen cases had been confirmed across eight counties.
Since COVID-19 started to emerge in Oklahoma, testing in the state has been limited.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February rolled out faulty test kits to state and local labs that hindered states’ abilities to test for COVID-19 because the kits contained a flawed reagent. Each state now has the ability to independently test for the virus, according to the CDC, but the faulty kits delayed widespread testing across the U.S.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health gained the ability to independently test for COVID-19 on March 6. Before then, the state was sending specimens to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta for testing, which caused a several-day lag time in waiting for results.
Private labs just in the last few days have started to gain the ability to run tests in Oklahoma.
Gov. Kevin Stitt on Tuesday afternoon issued an executive order that requires the health department and private labs conducting COVID-19 testing to submit daily reports to the office on how many tests they are capable of performing that day and the number of tests on hand that can be distributed to hospitals.
Stitt declared on Sunday a state of emergency for all 77 Oklahoma Counties, and school officials on Monday closed all public schools until early April.
State health officials on Saturday confirmed the first transmission of COVID-19 by community spread in Oklahoma. Community spread means the transmission of the virus among people who are unsure how or where they were infected.
“We all need to be aware, if we do expand testing capabilities, we will find more cases and the caseload will grow,” Cox said.
During a media briefing at the OU Medicine campus in Oklahoma City on Tuesday morning, doctors said with limited testing in the state, not everyone who has COVID-19 has been captured. They also noted the lag time between a patient presenting symptoms, getting tested and receiving test results. During that time the patient is likely infectious. The state’s numbers are behind by at least five days.
Asked about the seven newly confirmed cases in the state, Dr. Jason Sanders said he was “not surprised.” Sanders is the senior vice president and provost at OU Health Sciences Center.
“We are prepared for this,” Sanders said. “As you’ve heard, that data already lags several days. And the actual number of cases is higher than that.”
Dr. Douglas Drevets, chief of infectious diseases at OU Medicine, said it was important for the state to have the ability to test a large number of people.
“What we’re doing now in terms of limiting testing is largely because we don’t have enough tests,” Drevets said. “Now that’s no surprise to anyone in this room, and we hope that much of these guidelines, much of our guidance, will evolve over time.
“So we’re really trying to prioritize testing for the people we really — and by we, I mean the medical community — that we really have to know if they have COVID or if it’s influenza or bacterial pneumonia or something else.
Aaron Wendelboe is an epidemiologist at OU Hudson College of Public Health. He said broadened testing might give the state more ability to slow spread of the virus.
“One additional thought is just that as testing is made more available, we actually hope to diagnose those cases and if we can do that more quickly then it will be a tool to help us track those contacts and stop transmission,” he said.
Because of the relatively low number of supplies needed to complete tests, the health department also said on Tuesday that it will prioritize tests for those who meet the CDC testing criteria for COVID-19: People age 60 years and up, children and adults with compromised immune systems and people who both have symptoms and were in close contact with a person already diagnosed with the disease.
In a news release sent out on Tuesday morning, the state health department said patients should consult a physician or public health professional if they develop symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.
“Clinicians may recommend testing for other respiratory illnesses, including flu, before recommending a COVID-19 test,” the release said.
“If you have minimal or no symptoms, please do not rush out to get tested,” Drevets said. “This will overwhelm the limited testing capabilities, and will it just not be helpful to you or to the medical community. The advice would be to stay at home and protect those around you.”
COVID-19 at the Capitol
The health department confirmed on Tuesday a State Senate staffer tested positive for COVID-19, prompting senators and some of their staff members to be tested for the virus.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the Legislature is working to partner with a private lab to administer COVID tests for legislative employees.
According to NonDoc, the staffer who tested positive had not been at the Capitol since Friday.
“While the risk to a majority of Senate personnel and senators remains low, per the recommendation and under the guidance of health officials, we are taking appropriate measures,” said Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, in a news release.
Treat said Senate offices would be closed beginning Wednesday through Friday, and that employees would work remotely during that time.
“The Senate will continue to operate and serve the citizens of the state of Oklahoma,” Treat said. “We will continue working with other state officials, health care professionals, and agencies as state government addresses this public health crisis.”
Staff writer Clifton Adcock contributed to this story.