After less than four months in the role, the director of the state’s embattled Public Health Lab has resigned amid the facility’s turbulent transition from Oklahoma City to Stillwater.
Dr. Michael Kayser submitted his resignation letter on April 16, about three months after he stepped into the job. The letter said his resignation went into effect on April 30, but ongoing negotiations had kept Kayser in his role to “ensure a smooth transition,” an Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesman told The Frontier on Thursday.
“Thank you for all the support and opportunities you have provided,” Kayser wrote in the letter. “I believe in the mission and vision of OPCIE and am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to launch the Public Health Laboratory and Pandemic Center in Stillwater. This will become an asset to Oklahoma, the region, and the country.
“Unfortunately, I am unable to continue in these roles.”
In order to maintain the lab’s compliance with federal regulations, Kayser will remain as the CLIA laboratory director until a replacement is found, said Kenneth Sewell, president of Prairie One Solutions, which manages the lab. The organization plans to conduct a national search to replace him, Sewell said.
“We appreciate all the work Dr. Kayser has put into laying the groundwork for a state-of-the-art lab,” Sewell said in an emailed statement. “His expertise and guidance will benefit the health outcomes of Oklahomans for years to come.”
Kayser said it was an honor to work in the lab.
“While I have enjoyed my time serving in this role, now is the right time to hand it off to someone who can build on the strong foundation that has been laid,” he said in an emailed statement on Thursday. “As I transition out of my role, I will leave knowing this team is committed to raising the quality of public health for all Oklahomans and will be diligent in their efforts to maintain those high standards.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health Public Health Lab and its staff provide an array of critical services, including coronavirus testing, disease screenings for all Oklahoma newborns and training for private labs.
Gov. Kevin Stitt announced in October the Public Health Lab would move from Oklahoma City to Stillwater. The news quickly drew opposition from lawmakers, medical groups and lab employees, who raised concerns about the location, logistics, and about moving the lab away from Oklahoma City’s biomedical hub in the midst of a global pandemic.
The transition is ongoing and involves retrofitting an existing building into an interim facility while the state constructs a new building to house the lab. Officials are using federal CARES Act funds to pay for the majority of the move.
Officials outsourced management of the state’s Public Health Lab in December to Prairie One Solutions, a newly-formed nonprofit subsidiary of the OSU Research Foundation.
During the transition from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, health officials ordered a mobile lab to temporarily house some of the lab’s testing duties. The health department paid $2.9 million in CARES Act funding for the trailer, which officials said could also be used for mobile rapid coronavirus testing.
The mobile lab will arrive in Stillwater later this year, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Department of Health said.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health in mid-January announced Kayser would be the director of the Public Health Lab, which recently moved under the umbrella of the new Oklahoma Pandemic Center of Innovation and Excellence.
Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye had called Kayser a “rare combination,” noting Kayser’s experience in newborn screening and experience in the laboratory setting.
“We believe that he is a great fit to lead the OPCIE and Public Health Lab, and will advance innovative research in our state to serve Oklahomans,” Frye said in a January news release.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced it had started to temporarily outsource tuberculosis testing to the Missouri State Public Health Laboratory and the Texas State Public Health Laboratory as the lab moves locations.
The testing is expected to resume in the fall and won’t cause disruptions in services, according to an agency news release. The outsourcing also won’t affect the lab’s budget.
“This decision was made in order to continue providing Oklahomans with top quality testing and healthcare services as we continue to establish capabilities at the new Public Health Lab,” said Travis Kirkpatrick, deputy commissioner with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, in the news release.
During the lab’s transition, the state Health Department has outsourced several of its tests.
In February, the Public Health Lab started to outsource some tests to private labs as well as a public health lab in Minnesota because of staff shortages and its transition to Stillwater, Oklahoma Watch reported. Among the outsourced tests were those for E. coli, meningitis and salmonella.
Those tests are expected to resume in Oklahoma on July 1, the department has said.
In March, the state announced it would temporarily contract with a lab in Pennsylvania for the state’s newborn screening, a blood test that identifies rare diseases that can cause disability, death or serious health issues if not treated quickly.
The outsourcing to PerkinElmer Genomics came after Kayser identified inconsistencies in the testing and discovered the Public Health Lab had not been adequately screening for a rare metabolic disorder, Tyrosinemia Type 1, health officials told reporters at the time. The state’s Public Health Lab will be able to resume that testing June 1, the news release states.
When the testing begins in Stillwater, the lab will be able to test for four additional disorders, bringing the total number of tests the lab can conduct to 61.
Testing for the coronavirus, rabies and sexually transmitted infection are still being completed at the old Public Health Lab in Oklahoma City, officials said in a news release earlier this week.
Coronavirus and STI testing are expected to move to Stillwater on June 1, and rabies testing will begin there Aug. 1.
Genomic sequencing on COVID-19 samples, which can detect mutations or variants in the virus, is currently being done in Stillwater.
Clarification 5/21/2021: A previous version of this story stated some of the lab’s work was temporarily done out of a trailer. Though the mobile lab will be used for that purpose, it won’t arrive in Oklahoma until the fall.