OKLAHOMA CITY — The state plans to spend millions to move its public health laboratory from Oklahoma City to “the middle of rural America,” officials announced Wednesday.

Health officials said they plan to use $25 million in state funds along with federal coronavirus aid to move the laboratory into temporary leased space in Stillwater by the end of the year.

The lab is currently located inside the former Oklahoma State Department of Health building in Oklahoma City. The agency, though, is moving to a new location downtown that doesn’t have space for a public health lab.

State leaders plan to build a permanent public health laboratory in Stillwater within the next few years using $58.5 million in bonds approved by the Legislature in 2017.

The move provides the state an opportunity to think differently about how it elevates science and innovation, said Kevin Corbett, state secretary of health and mental health.

“Leveraging OSU’s rural expertise in agriculture and animal medicine along with OU’s urban expertise in human medicine, as well as private research investments, this relocation of the Public Health Lab to Stillwater will take our offerings to the highest caliber and put the heart of public health right in the middle of rural America,” said Kevin Corbett, state secretary of health and mental health.

State officials also announced Wednesday the creation of the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence, which also will be located in Stillwater.

The center will operate virtually until the permanent public health lab construction is complete. OPCIE, as officials call it, will then be located inside the public health lab building, officials said.

In a press release, officials said the creation of the center along with the move of the public health laboratory “to the heart of rural Oklahoma in Stillwater will give the state a leg up in both rural and urban medicine for generations to come.”

Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s interim commissioner of health, said the state is moving quickly finalize a lease for a temporary location.

“Our integrated approach to public health, diagnostic capabilities and specimen collection will become the gold standard for detecting, responding to and monitoring global health pandemics through the OPCIE,” Frye said. “We believe this unique approach positions Oklahoma as a national and global leader in pandemic preparedness and research.”

The first of its kind in the nation, the pandemic center will connect agriculture, animal and human medicine, public health testing and preparedness and food safety, officials said.

Already in the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Frye said Oklahoma officials are bracing for more pandemics. State leaders repeatedly have faced criticism for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sickened over 94,000 Oklahomans since March. As of Wednesday, 1,075 Oklahomans had died from the virus.

“The frequency of these and the possibility of things happening in the future is definitely something we want to plan for,” Frye said. “With this response, you can see that we hadn’t invested in infrastructure. We weren’t really well-prepared for it. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

The pandemic center will help tie together the state’s public health response by leveraging public and private partnerships. It plans to work with Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma and OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Creating this center of excellence in Oklahoma allows our state to leverage our local expertise and federal assets while we work to lead the nation in pandemic preparedness,” said Elizabeth Pollard, the state’s secretary of science and innovation.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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