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Point of View: New Public Health Lab ushers in bright future for Oklahoma health

This time last year, Oklahoma’s Public Health Lab was antiquated, facing the real possibility of a loss in accreditation and failing to provide services we desperately needed to improve public health outcomes for our state.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Public Health Lab showed itself to be woefully inadequate in keeping up with diagnostic testing, a critical tool to combat the rapidly spreading coronavirus. This was unacceptable but gave us the opportunity to dream about the kind of lab we wanted for our state.

We want a lab that not only can meet and exceed our state’s public health needs, but one that can have a meaningful impact on combating COVID-19 now while also ensuring Oklahoma is looking ahead to the next pandemic. And, less than a year later, now we have one.

The Public Health Lab has undergone a massive transformation to become the innovative state-of-the-art lab we need to better serve Oklahomans now and in the future.

In January, state officials cut the ribbon on the new Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, which has been established in Stillwater alongside the Public Health Lab. This unveiling marks the first of many health innovations to come for an agency leading the charge in seeing our state through this pandemic.

The decision to move the Public Health Lab to Stillwater was not made lightly. With its central location and best-in-class equipment, this new site makes it even more accessible to county health departments and their rural and urban constituents across the state.

The new Public Health Lab combines the very best of agriculture, animal and human medicine, food safety, public health testing, and pandemic preparedness without $1 expended in state appropriated funds. The new lab will focus on a “One Health” model, which recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and of our environment. Our expertise in both human and agricultural sciences perfectly positions Oklahoma to lead the way.

Its location alongside the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence will forge a new degree of innovation and collaboration with universities, health care providers and other partners across the state and nation on research, resources and technology for the highest caliber public health response possible.

Perhaps most important during the COVID-19 pandemic: This new lab allows us the chance to think differently about how we handle all forms of testing by utilizing the latest technology to ensure there is no delay or lag in testing results, providing real-time data to inform decision-making across the state.

It will also help us start building our defense against future pandemics. The increased testing and one-of-a-kind biorepository on site will allow us to collect and store biospecimens from this pandemic to inform future responses.

Oklahomans should be proud of the Public Health Lab we have built. Now, as operations kick off at the brand new lab this month, I’m truly excited to see how this shift in mindset to a comprehensive One Health model will improve health outcomes for all Oklahomans.

Travis Kirkpatrick is the Deputy Commissioner of Health Innovation at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.