Data released to The Frontier Sunday, April 5 brings Oklahoma closer to clearing up one of the major coronavirus questions in the state — just how many people have been tested for the virus?
In mid-March a number of private laboratories began testing patients who believed they might have been infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Prior to that, testing in Oklahoma had been limited to the state lab as health officials sought to conserve the limited supply of reagents.
When the private labs joined the state’s testing effort, the number of positive test results predictably began to rise. But many private labs were not reporting negative testing results to the state, so getting a full picture on testing efforts in Oklahoma proved difficult.
But that changed over the weekend when private labs reported more than 6,000 negative test results going as far back as early February, according to the state health department.
As of Sunday evening, the agency said about 70 percent of negative results had been reported.
“After this weekend, the Oklahoma State Department of Health has made great progress towards collecting both positive and negative results from our private lab partners, and we will continue to work to achieve full reporting in the coming days,” the department said in an emailed statement.
The 6,000 new reports bring the state’s total to more than 7,400 negative results. When counting the positive tests, more than 8,600 tests were reported to have been completed as of Sunday.
The health department said it would release more detailed numbers this week.
Oklahoma gained national attention last week when Politico ranked the state in the bottom three states, along with Georgia and Michigan, for one of the lowest per capita testing rates in the nation. And over the weekend, an image naming Oklahoma as the state with the lowest testing percentage circulated around social media.
Analysis of Oklahoma’s ranking had been conducted on the assumption the state had only completed about 2,700 tests. Still, the data indicates the state has completed fewer tests than many of its neighbors. Missouri has completed more than 27,000 tests, New Mexico has processed about 16,800 and Arkansas has done more than 11,200. Kansas has tested less than Oklahoma with 8,223 tests.
Oklahoma’s number of confirmed cases of the virus has been climbing over the last couple of weeks, but the state has been unable to capture important information that comes from how many people had been tested for the virus versus how many of those tests came back positive.
In the last week, positive results in the state have risen from 481 to 1,252. But negative test results had only gone from about 1,200 on Monday morning to 1,401 on Sunday morning.
Private labs have completed a large portion of testing in Oklahoma — while the state has confirmed 186 COVID-19 cases, other labs have captured at least 849, according to the state health department.
Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Gary Cox on Tuesday sent a letter to private labs urging them to submit daily test results, including negatives. The state in March designated COVID-19 as a disease that should immediately be reported to the health department.
“With this designation, the State is instructing private labs to report both positive results and negative results to ensure the State has the full picture of COVID-19’s impact in Oklahoma,” Cox wrote.
That absent information makes it difficult for officials and experts to track how the disease is spreading and how to slow its spread.
Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge said in a press conference last week that without that data, the state has only “part of the equation.”
“The reason that we need to test is we need to see both where it exists in the community and we need to get the denominator of our math up,” he said.
On Sunday morning, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 1,252 known cases of coronavirus.
However, testing numbers in the state have been unreliable and available data has failed to capture the entire picture. Partly because for much of March, many Oklahomans seeking to be tested were turned away unless they were immunocompromised or in a vulnerable age bracket.
Officials have repeatedly acknowledged that Oklahoma’s actual number of COVID-19 cases is much higher than what testing has been able to capture. One expert estimated only one in 10 cases were being identified.
Since COVID-19 started emerging in Oklahoma in early March, the state has been slow to ramp up testing.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February rolled out faulty test kits to state and local labs that hindered states’ ability to quickly start testing for the virus because the kits contained a faulty chemical needed to complete the tests, also known as a reagent.
Oklahoma, which gained independent testing abilities on March 6, struggled to start widespread testing for the virus and grappled with a nationwide shortage of reagents.
Oklahoma State University was able to bypass the federal government late last month when it received 10,000 test kits from a commercial manufacturer. When OSU’s lab starts to run at maximum capacity, it will be able to complete 2,000 tests per day, officials have said.
And last week, officials announced the availability of more than 13,000 test kits and that 13 satellite testing sites across the state would be operational by the end of the week.
“Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 or those who have come in contact with someone with COVID needs to be tested this week,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt during a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon.