STILLWATER, Okla. (KFOR) – After months of reporting on the state’s public health lab, on everything from newborn screening to questions about the state’s response to the pandemic and various tests for COVID, KFOR was given the chance to go inside the Stillwater lab for a tour, along with an interview with the district health officer.
A previous email from a representative of the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) said the former director of the lab, Dr. Jarrad Wagner, “continues to support the transition to a new leader.”
Before the tour began, KFOR was told that no cameras would be allowed on the first leg of the tour, due to privacy concerns.
The visit with the state’s Public Health Lab comes after a number of issues KFOR has been covering recently, including problems with newborn screening, a problem that has left some Oklahoma parents on edge.
Additionally, controversy over the Public Health Lab’s interim testing led to a review in 2021, according to the government agency.
Newborn screening is required for every child born in Oklahoma, according to OSDH; He also confirmed that the department performs all newborn screenings in its Stillwater Public Health Lab.
Screening is a routine test and helps medical professionals identify potential abnormalities or outliers that may require further testing.
If necessary, diagnostic tests can be performed to confirm or rule out various rare or serious diseases; they also provide opportunities for early detection and treatment.
“But being a screening program, unfortunately, there are things that have to be done or we’re going to miss good cases. And that’s just a risk we can’t take,” Reed said.
However, newborn screening results provided by a June open-source request from KFOR, have confirmed that Oklahoma parents were wrongly told that their child had been tested for a life-changing condition.
In previous interviews with KFOR, representatives of the state’s health laboratory said that more than 50,000 newborns are screened every year.
Lisa Caton, OSDH’s new Managing Director said:
The Department of Health provided the data requested in response to an open records request by KFOR in June.
The data presented showed that in December 2021 alone, 72 tests came back with X-ALD, a fatal and rare disease; newborn screening is done by the state health laboratory.
However, a 2015 study conducted at Duke University suggests that there should be only two to three tests for every 100,000 tests performed for the disease.
Additional corrections to the June test were sent to KFOR on July 6 detailing several points of correction, as well as additional explanations of previously used terms.
KFOR is awaiting additional information regarding the follow-up questionnaire on education and skills, the Laboratory Information System used in newborn testing, and the process for detecting and correcting errors.
When asked to explain the number of abnormalities from one month to the next in newborn screenings, State Health Commissioner Keith Reed cited several issues, including equipment.
“We have new weapons,” he said in an interview Thursday with KFOR. “We’ve moved our lab and we’ve got new equipment. So, any time you have different equipment, you can have different problems within that equipment,” he said, adding that “changing the equipment” can also lead to “changes in your abnormal results.”
The commissioner said staff are working with their laboratory colleagues and manufacturers to explain why past inspection numbers are so high.
“We’re going to continue to bring it up to a legal standard,” Reed said.
KFOR also asked about lab testing capabilities for COVID-19, including the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, which was established in 2020.
According to the CDC, Oklahoma has previously been near the bottom in various tests, but at the time, the center was recognized as the “front line of defense” for COVID.
When asked on Thursday, Commissioner Reed said that although there is a brick and mortar building for the Public Health Lab, the Pandemic Center is a vision.
“The work house does not exist at the moment,” he said, referring to the place where the epidemic is like. “The epidemic itself is a vision.”
OSDH confirmed 37 employees working at the laboratory, including three administrative staff.
As confirmed by KFOR on Thursday, the Public Health Lab now has a permanent director.
Tamar Baruch-Finkel, a pathologist, was present during the visit; however, KFOR was not given the opportunity to speak with him personally.