Oklahoma expected to ramp up COVID-19 testing over the next week

“In order for us to have an appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must have the capacity to test additional populations."

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Gov. Kevin Stitt talks on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, following a commutation hearing at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
With the addition of four mobile sites and two university labs going online for testing, Oklahoma is expected to dramatically ramp up its COVID-19 testing capabilities over the next week.

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the mobile testing sites during a press conference at the Oklahoma National Guard Regional Training Institute in Oklahoma City on Sunday evening.

The mobile testing sites, which are expected to be running this week, will be in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, McAlester and the Ponca City area.

“The more we test, the more positives we’re gonna get,” Stitt said. “We’re tracking that closely.”

The governor amended an executive order on Saturday allowing University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University labs to conduct COVID-19 testing.

The labs should have testing capabilities by the end of the week, said Dr. Kayse Shrum, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Innovation, and president of OSU Center For Health Sciences.

“In order for us to have an appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must have the capacity to test additional populations,” she said at the press conference.

If the labs are running at maximum capacity, they would have the ability to test 10,000 Oklahomans for the novel coronavirus, Shrum said. OSU’s research lab can run 2,000 tests per day and get results within 24 hours, she said.

“That means we should be able to expand our testing capability by tenfold by the end of the week,” Shrum said.

Since COVID-19 started to emerge in Oklahoma, the state has struggled with its testing capabilities.

As of Sunday morning, the health department reported 736 people had been tested for the virus and 102 tests were pending. Sixty-seven people had tested positive for COVID-19 and 11 patients had been hospitalized, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Two people have died.

The state health department announced on Friday it had entered into a partnership with the private lab Diagnostic Labs of Oklahoma, and that more than 300 specimens had been sent to a facility in Dallas for processing.

Shrum said the state’s highest priorities for testing will be health care workers and those who are hospitalized. Hospitalized patients are prioritized because health care workers need to know if personal protective equipment is needed or if they need to quarantine themselves if exposed to certain patients, she said.

As testing capabilities expand, Shrum said, the next priority group would be high-risk populations, such as those with underlying health conditions and people 65-years of age or older.

Shrum echoed Stitt’s sentiment that the number of positives would increase with testing, but noted Oklahoma was still in its mitigation stage of the pandemic.

“After we get a good pattern of testing, we get these 10,000 tests, we’ll be able to see a little bit clearer how quickly we anticipate our cases increasing,” she said.

Stitt also said the state would set up donation spots for people to donate personal protective gear to health care workers.

COVID-19 response task force expanded
Stitt’s office announced on Sunday the expansion of a COVID-19 response task force that aims to broaden the state’s response to the pandemic.

Shrum will help coordinate health provider readiness and medical supply chain management, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

The multiagency task force includes representatives from areas such as education, mental health, business and human services.

John Budd, secretary of agency accountability and the state’s chief operating officer, said the task force will help to broaden the state’s response to the virus. While Health Commissioner Gary Cox and the Department of Emergency Management will continue to handle the emergency response, the task force will focus on the consequences COVID-19 might have on areas such as schools and businesses.

“It’s not that those things aren’t important. They are important,” Budd said. “The economy is important. Education is important. But we need to let the folks working on the health care part of this get that done without having to worry about those broader implications.”

One of the goals of the task force, which meets daily, is to engage a wider array of state stakeholders in areas of concern such as agriculture, human services and health care readiness, Budd said. Those stakeholders will advise the governor’s office on issues and help to inform policy decisions, he said. The task force will also help to coordinate response efforts.

Gary Cox, commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health discusses information with Brig. Gen. Tommy Mancino, commander of the Oklahoma National Guard Joint Task Force, at the Joint Task Force’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, March 20, 2020. Oklahoma National Guard Photo by Sgt. Anthony Jones

The Oklahoma National Guard is currently helping the governor’s office with planning and coordination of the response, said Brig. Gen. Tommy Mancino, executive director of the Oklahoma Military Department and the Oklahoma Army National Guard assistant adjutant general. Mancino is serving as the liaison between the Oklahoma National Guard and governor’s office.

The Oklahoma National Guard has plenty of experience responding to emergencies such as tornadoes and fires, Mancino said. But the novel coronavirus is “a really unique problem.” Unlike a tornado or fire, the virus is not confined to a specific area.

“It is such a large problem set and it crosses so many different domains that it requires a different type of approach,” he said.

The Oklahoma National Guard on Thursday activated its joint task force at the Oklahoma National Guard Regional Training Institute. The activation is an effort to prepare guardsmen from any missions they might be called to perform.

The activation at the training institute provided state leaders a location to meet and coordinate, Mancino said. Guardsmen are available to help inform the governor’s office on logistics such as the inventory of medical supplies.

The Oklahoma National Guard currently has no plans to mobilize, Mancino said.

“I’ll just tell you, we do nothing in secret,” he said. “If we mobilize they will be at the direction of the governor, and we will announce them well ahead of time so that people can expect to see us.”

Further reading:

COVID-19 is spreading in Oklahoma. But testing is still limited.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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