Efforts by state officials to ramp up testing while transitioning toward a new normal must be applauded. But glitches that reduced access and availability emphasize the need for careful consideration of every step before it is taken.
An ambitious plan to test all nursing home employees and patients while lifting restrictions that previously prohibited most public testing for asymptomatic Oklahomans overwhelmed state laboratories. Unable to analyze specimens submitted for COVID-19 testing, the Oklahoma State Health Department scaled back testing so labs could clear the backlog.
A spokesman for the Muskogee County Health Department said this week a switch made by the state from the use of saliva tests to nasal swabs at nursing homes contributed to the bottleneck and a temporary suspension of testing at long-term care facilities. Nasal swab tests, according to a report presented to Muskogee City Council, apparently "are in shorter supply but are more accurate."
These testing snafus come at a critical time — as workers are called by by employers attempting to reopen pursuant to the second phase of Gov. Kevin Stitt's plan, which provides for the resumption of nonessential travel and organized sports. Limits placed on the types of court cases that can be docketed will be lifted along with the 10-person attendance cap for funerals and weddings, and bars will open doors to customers while adhering to occupancy restrictions.
OSDH officials on Wednesday reported state testing was back on track, with a sufficient number of kits and the reagent required to process collected specimens. But a shortage of machines used to process the specimens still exists, and the state will funnel public funds to private labs for services secured outside the competitive bidding process.
Meanwhile, there is some dispute about whether Oklahoma meets White House criteria intended to guide states as businesses reopen during the pandemic. The director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases described the guidelines as "very well thought-out and very well-delineated.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, during his testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, said states that "jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently" could see "little spikes" become "outbreaks.” Oklahoma experienced a little spike since Stitt unveiled his plan, which included a testing regime that stumbled out of the gate.
We urge careful consideration of each step toward this new normal. In light of these testing missteps, we prefer officials complete the deliberative process before each step is taken.