By the end of May, the State of Oklahoma intends to test another 90,000 Oklahomans and have 1,000 people trained to trace the contacts of those diagnosed with COVID-19.
Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Gary Cox made those commitments and announced a new partnership for mobile testing of underserved areas during a press conference outside of Guiding Right, a community outreach nonprofit in northeast OKC.
But only two days removed from learning his agency’s COVID-19-related expenditures will soon be audited, Cox also addressed the elephant in the parking lot.
“We welcome the audit,” Cox said, pledging “full cooperation” with State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office. “We’re transparent.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt stood with Cox and defended the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s efforts to obtain and distribute personal protective equipment, such as masks, ventilators and testing supplies.
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“When questions arose this week about the amount of spending taking place at the State Department of Health, the team pulled together a quick overview of our current expenses,” Stitt said. “With everything the Health Department has bought to protect Oklahomans, it has spent 1 percent of our total federal dollars available to fight COVID up to this point. Everything we are buying is to protect the health and lives of Oklahomans.”
Stitt said Congress has sent Oklahoma about $1.2 billion to assist with COVID-19 efforts and that he designated Secretary of Budget Mike Mazzei to lead oversight efforts of the federal money.
“He immediately got to work to form a special financing team of public employees to monitor and maximize every penny,” Stitt said. “These federal dollars have allowed us to purchase millions of N95, KN95 masks and surgical masks in a very competitive global market. We’ve been able to buy gowns, face shields and hand sanitizer from Oklahoma businesses.”
Stitt’s statements came after The Oklahoman reported Tuesday morning that a $9.5 million deal to buy PPE had been cancelled after communication with the FBI, which was investigating the supplier.
“I’m going to continue to turn over every rock and run down every lead as we compete against other states and other countries around the world for PPE because my job as governor is to protect the health and lives of Oklahomans,” Stitt said. “As part of our response, we have shipped PPE to all 150 hospitals. We just completed shipping a seven-day supply to all of our 308 nursing homes all across the state, as well as EMTs, law enforcement, firefighters, funeral home employees and many others on the front lines fighting COVID-19.”
The Health Department audit was requested by Attorney General Mike Hunter on Tuesday.
‘We will bring the tests to you’
Stitt and Cox were standing on the blazing-hot blacktop with Sen. George Young (D-OKC) and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma president Dr. Joseph Cunningham to announce a new public-private partnership to expand COVID-19 testing in underserved communities.
“We don’t want anyone to be denied the opportunity to have a COVID-19 test because of transportation issues,” Cox said.
Cox said nine “Caring Vans” will be launched in partnership with the OSDH, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and the Tulsa City-County Health Department.
Young said he asked Cox for COVID-19 statistics regarding race earlier in the month, which he said were quickly provided.
“When I called him back and said thank you for that, I said, ‘I’m kind of concerned (…) about are we testing enough in certain areas to determine the rate of infection in those areas.’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I tell you what, I will see what I can do.’ Then a couple of weeks later he called me and said, ‘I have some news for you.'”
That news about mobile testing for at-risk communities was announced at today’s press conference at Guiding Right, where Young serves as a board member.
“What hurts us is what we don’t know,” Young said. “That’s why I’m thankful that we now have access to get testing to people and to place these vans strategically across Senate District 48 and other areas of our state — rural areas, governor, that might not have access.”
The BCBS vans typically provide immunizations for children but were available owing to pandemic-related shutdowns.
“As a physician, I took an oath to protect and take care of all people, regardless of their race, regardless of their income, regardless of where they live. So this is important,” Cunningham said. “We will bring the tests to you, and you don’t have to come to the tests.”