With hospitalizations from COVID-19 reaching an all-time high in Oklahoma, state leaders this morning announced the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, a virtual umbrella for public health response now and in the future.
“The Oklahoma Pandemic Center will be the next generation of public health response,” said Elizabeth Pollard, secretary of science and innovation. “Oklahoma is the perfect intersection of urban, rural and tribal communities.”
Pollard is one of the leading minds behind the new center, which will ultimately be located in Stillwater and will bring together public and private partners in an effort to prepare for future pandemics, other public health crises and even animal infectious disease outbreaks.
If the center were already in existence, Pollard said it would be able to process up to 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day. The state currently has the ability to process about 6,500 per day, an increase over the state public health laboratory’s March capacity of roughly 100 per day.
“This center is much more than testing. It’s going to be leveraging our bio-specimens,” Pollard said. “Specimens we’ve gotten through our Purdue settlement, but also our specimens that we’ve gotten through COVID and other situations. But we also need to be doing that for animal health.”
Pollard and Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye said the center’s efforts and opportunities will eventually extend beyond state boundaries, but for now the project will be funded by the existing $9.5 million public health laboratory budget and federal dollars, available CARES Act money. A $58.5 million bonding capacity authorized for the public health lab in 2017 by the Oklahoma Legislature will be activated to help build a new facility in Stillwater.
‘We were dealing with very antiquated systems’
Asked what might have gone better regarding Oklahoma’s response to COVID-19 if the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence had already been functioning at the start of 2020, Frye appeared relieved to list a few of the challenges he has inherited since being tasked with managing the Oklahoma State Department of Health in May.
“One of the biggest struggles we had was the lack of investing in our infrastructure,” Frye said. “We were dealing with very antiquated systems. Quite honestly, pretty much everything we have in our old building is antiquated. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in there, but we need help.”
Frye noted that the current pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted particular problems with the state’s public health system, a long-beleaguered component of Oklahoma government.
“We are in a situation that has allowed us to really bring to our attention different parts of the agency that needed to be completely redone, basically,” Frye said. “This crisis has brought to the forefront different sections that we could see were antiquated and needed to be fixed, and the public health laboratory was one of those areas.”
In what might have been the most stressful statement of the day, Frye told media that health leaders do expect additional pandemics in coming years or decades.
“This is about investing in the future response,” Frye said. “We are expecting more to come. Just think about Ebola, different things that have happened in the past. The frequency of these and the possibility of these happening in the future is something we want to be prepped for.”
Does that mean Oklahoma’s public health infrastructure was not prepared for COVID-19?
“We weren’t really well prepared for it, and we want to make sure we don’t let that happen again,” Frye said.
Better news for rabbits
Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur also attended Wednesday’s announcement, calling the project a tremendous opportunity.
“We have talked in the ag sector about ‘one health’ for a long time. That is the alignment of animal health and human health, because certainly the livestock we raise for humans to consume is an incredibly important part of human health as well,” Arthur told NonDoc. “So with this new center, we have tremendous opportunity to help our livestock sector here in the state of Oklahoma to prepare for situations.”
Arthur said she believes Oklahoma can ultimately “set the standard nationally” for handling animal health response.
“This gives us a great opportunity to collaborate with our friends on the human health side, the (OSU) veterinary school to say, ‘How can we be better prepared? How can we protect the herd health of the state of Oklahoma?'” Arthur said.
One 2020 national public (animal) health crisis that appears to be on the downswing in Oklahoma is the spring outbreak of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, an extremely deadly viral infection that kills wild and domestic rabbits by causing internal bleeding and liver impairment.
Arthur said Oklahoma’s state veterinarian issued a June ban on the co-mingling of rabbits, but she said the ban was lifted near the end of September.
“We are very appreciative of all of our rabbitry owners,” she said. “We have a lot of 4-H owners who exhibit rabbits typically, and they were all very respectful of how that disease could impact their industry. Since that has been managed well, that stop-movement (order) has now been lifted.”
Arthur said the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture is “taking judicious steps to protect the herd health of all livestock, but particularly rabbits right now.”