Updated: This developing story was updated with additional information on Jan. 11. 

After more than two years marked with staffing shortages and citations from federal inspectors, management of the Oklahoma Public Health Lab will shift back from a private nonprofit vendor to the State Department of Health at the end of January.

Prairie One Solutions, a nonprofit formed under the Oklahoma State University Research Foundation, took over management of the lab in late 2020. The facility processes vital testing for the state, including health screenings for newborns, tests for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.  

Prairie One Solution’s initial contract with the state in December 2020 was for one year with four automatic renewal periods. But the Health Department said Wednesday in a statement to The Frontier that transitioning management of the lab back to the state has “always been the plan.” 

The statement said the agency was “grateful” for its collaboration with Oklahoma State University and Prairie One Solutions. The state has paid Prairie One Solutions nearly $2.5 million to manage the lab.

“….But we believe it is the right time for OSDH to take the reins in managing the lab,” the statement said. “We are excited and ready to manage the PHL, and are committed to growing and building the lab to make it one of the top labs in the country.”

State Commissioner of Health Keith Reed told lawmakers during a budget hearing Wednesday at the Oklahoma Capitol that the Health Department will repurpose the money spent on its $1.5-million-a-year contract with Prairie One Solutions and the agency will absorb employees in key staff positions. 

Kenneth Sewell, president of the Oklahoma State Research Foundation and founder of Prairie One Solutions, said they were “pleased with our critical role in filling gaps in our state’s public health system.” 

“We support this move, recognizing Prairie One Solutions was set up at a critical time with a sense of urgency during the early stages of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic,” Sewell said in a statement to The Frontier

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced in late 2020 that the lab would move from Oklahoma City to Stillwater. The Public Health Lab had been included in plans for a pandemic research center on the OSU campus that state officials said would be a “global leader in promoting pandemic awareness and preserving public health.” 

Following the move, which many criticized as rushed and without legislative oversight, the lab has faced critical staffing shortages, federal investigations on mishandling of COVID-19 tests, and testing delays after the lab had to outsource work it could no longer handle in its new facility. 

Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, sits on the Senate’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee and said she was surprised to learn of the management transition. 

“We are facing the consequences of hasty decisions by the governor to move the public health lab in the middle of the pandemic,” Kirt said. “Many of us advised against the knee-jerk move and for further analysis of long-term needs and consequences.” 

Reed said Wednesday that funding for the pandemic center had not been realized, so health officials are trying to hammer out future plans for the Public Health Lab. The building that now houses the lab in Stillwater would require further construction to bring back tests that have been outsourced. The agency could also put trailers that it ordered in late 2020 behind the lab building and run some tests there.

“I’m focusing on trying to get the Public Health Lab back to the operational standard I need it at now,” Reed said. “I don’t want to rely on another Public Health Lab to meet the needs I feel like we should be able to.” 

The Health Department is asking state lawmakers for funding to cover debt payments for a $58.5-million bond lawmakers approved in 2017 for building a new Public Health Lab. Reed said the agency is comparing the costs of renovating the existing building versus constructing a new facility in the same location. 

The agency owns the current lab building and the land it’s on in Stillwater. 

The Health Department has already spent at least $30 million to move the Public Health Lab after using federal COVID-19 relief money to cover pandemic-related payroll costs, freeing up other money out of its own budget to move the facility.