OKLAHOMA CITY — With a handful of COVID-19 public test kits remaining and not enough resources to test collected specimens, health officials fear the deadly virus may spread undetected statewide until more tests can be shipped to Oklahoma.
“Testing capability is dwindling, not only in Tulsa, not only in Oklahoma, but also in this country,” said Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. “We know we have more specimens to be tested than test kits to do the testing.”
Oklahoma health officials said they’ve ordered the maximum supply allotted — 500 more kits — but federal officials won’t give them an arrival date.
Amid a national shortage and surging demand, members of Oklahoma’s federal Congressional delegation, meanwhile, indicated that there’s little they can do little at this juncture to speed up access to tests that are critical to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma.
“For now, we need to all assume we have (the coronavirus) … to try to bring down the number of cases within two weeks,” said U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma.
He urged Oklahomans to self-isolate for 15 days to give the federal government more time to manufacture more tests and replenish the depleted national stockpile.
“We’re buying time right now,” Lankford said. “We’re trying to mitigate the spread by buying time.”
Test kits are critical because clinicians swab patients who are suspected of having the virus. Those samples are then sent to the public health lab in Oklahoma City for processing. The test kits are needed to confirm the presence of COVID-19. Without kits, samples cannot get tested.
Testing helps prevent community spread. It can detect the virus in those who aren't showing symptoms and help officials track cases, Lankford said.
Lankford said some states that experienced earlier outbreaks got a “higher, disproportionate amount” of the kits when the federal government handed them out. Oklahoma was not one of them.
Many states like New York and California then developed their own tests through universities to boost testing supplies, he said. Oklahoma didn’t do that either. Federal laws prohibit sharing university-developed tests between states.
Now Oklahoma is waiting in a long, backlogged line for its share.
“Every hospital, every state is clamoring (for the testing reagent),” Lankford said. “They’re making it as fast as (they) can. Literally as fast as they can make it, it’s going out the door.”
Lankford said federal officials initially decided they wanted a test that was more accurate and spent time developing that.
“That time is lost time for us that we’d love to have back at that point,” he said. “The testing out there is very accurate testing, but the speed of getting that type of development down has had the effect of slowing down the process.”
He’s hoping Oklahomans will start to see more tests flow into the state by late March or early April and is pushing to move the state toward the head of the line because of the community spread that’s now occurring across Oklahoma.
Even as testing numbers have dwindled, Oklahoma has seen a rapid rise in the number of confirmed cases. As of Thursday, there were 44 confirmed cases in more than a dozen counties.
Also Thursday, health officials confirmed the state’s first death from coronavirus — a Tulsa County resident in his 50s who tested positive Tuesday and died Wednesday from related complications. Health officials said he had no travel history and is a confirmed case of community spread.
But, health experts warned there could be many more cases that are currently spreading undetected and untested.
“There are probably thousands and thousands and thousands of people who have it who will never be tested,” said state Rep. Cindy Roe, R-Lindsay, who also works as a nurse practitioner in a post on Facebook. “We just need to continue to maintain our social distancing, keep your hands washed and avoid large crowds.”
Already in self-quarantine for two weeks following possible exposure to coronavirus, U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn said she’s very concerned about the shortage of tests in Oklahoma and touted the $8.3 billion emergency health funding package passed.
“We must make sure that all Oklahomans get access to testing as soon as possible,” Horn, an Oklahoma City Democrat representing the 5th Congressional District, said in an email. “This virus does not care what state you live in or how you vote. Our solutions must be about helping everyone impacted in this public health emergency.”
U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern, a Tulsa Republican representing the 1st Congressional District, said every day has brought new challenges. He’s spent the last several weeks working almost exclusively on COVID-19 legislation.
“It’s a big concern for me that Oklahomans are struggling to access testing kits, but the winds are changing,” he said in an email. “Channels are opening for more aid to reach communities like ours. I am constantly in contact with federal and state officials learning the most up-to-date information and working to make sure our people are taken care of during this time.”
In an email, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Moore Republican representing the 4th Congressional District, said its an evolving situation.
“I am certainly concerned about the availability of testing kits for Oklahomans, and I am committed to doing everything we can to ensure more are available as quickly as possible,” he said. “Fortunately, in the last two weeks President (Donald) Trump has signed into law legislation to fund production of more kits, deliver those needed resources to communities like ours and ensure testing is free.”
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, a Cheyenne Republican representing the 3rd Congressional District, said while he’s concerned about the availability of test kits, he’s confident Congress and the Trump administration will continue to provide the resources the state needs.
“I will continue to work with federal and state officials to ensure Oklahoma fills its testing kit shortage but it’s important we all continue to use common sense and practice good hygiene to help reduce community spread of the coronavirus,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.